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A renter’s guide to Chinatown

Everything you need to know about renting in one of Manhattan’s most famous neighborhoods

Max Touhey

Chinatown has long been one of Manhattan’s most famous ethnic enclaves, having earned its moniker thanks to the slew of primarily Cantonese-speaking Chinese immigrants who started populating the area back in the 19th century. In addition to serving as an haven for generations of Chinese New Yorkers, it’s become a big draw for tourists in search of authentic Cantonese and Fuzhou cuisine.

Thanks to community associations that have worked hard to preserve its mom & pop establishments and protect its real estate, the neighborhood has thus far managed to avoid getting swallowed by the big chains overtaking much of Manhattan. Still, with uptown commercial rents on the climb, change is coming to Chinatown.

“There are a ton of different restaurants and boutiques that are popping up,” says Natalia Padilla, a real estate agent with Citi Habitats who was raised in and still lives in Chinatown. “I think that has attracted a new range of people.”

Though some of the change has been startling for some of Chinatown’s long term residents, prompting concerns about gentrification, Padilla says folks are beginning to embrace the boom in business in the area. “The area is just more lively, I would say, and transitioning,” Padilla says. “I think it’s expanding and diversifying.”

The future of the area is a bit uncertain, especially as a slew of new apartments are added to the surrounding environs; a spate of skyscrapers (including Extell’s 80-plus story One Manhattan Square, and an enormous rental building from JDS) will soon transform the nearby enclave of Two Bridges. “There’s going to be a lot of change here,” Padilla notes. “It’s going to take a little time, but I think it’s definitely going to happen.”

But for now, there are still deals to be had in Chinatown—two-bedroom walk-ups can be found in the $2,500/month range—along with easy access to transit and establishments like Nom Wah Tea Parlor and Apotheke.

If any of that sounds appealing to you, read on.

Rental units

Padilla says that for now, the majority of Chinatown’s available housing stock consists of market-rate walk-ups owned by longtime mom & pop landlords, not major developers. There are still some very affordable apartments available through the Mitchell-Lama housing program. But for the most part, if you want to live in Chinatown, you’re getting a gut-renovated tenement, without the frills and amenities of luxury buildings in other neighborhoods.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor and historic Doyers Street.
Scott Lynch

Rent range

According to Padilla, one-bedrooms here average out to about $2,500/month. “You can go for something smaller, but you’ll be in something smaller,” Padilla says. It’s also noteworthy that in walk-ups (which can climb as high as six stories) apartments on higher floors tend to rent for a little less than those on lower floors, so if you’re in good shape and looking for a deal, you could luck out.

Rents tick up depending on how close you are to the neighborhood’s tourist center, located around Mulberry and Mott streets just north of Canal Street. “As we get a little closer to the Little Italy/Mulberry Street area, then we’re crossing into $2,600, $2,700,” Padilla says. “It can go as high as $3,000, just because some people want to be in that Nolita touristy area.” Two-bedrooms, Padilla says, tend to start around $2,500, though they too can climb into the $3,000/month-plus range, depending on the location.

Neighborhood highlights

You’re going to eat well in Chinatown: The aforementioned Nom Wah Tea Parlor, located on historic Doyers Street, has been serving up stellar dim sum since 1927, while noodle and dumpling spots like Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles and Lan Zhou Handmade Noodle and Dumpling dish out delectable cheap eats. There are also some newcomers, like Mr. Fong’s on Market Street and 49 Monroe on Monroe Street.

You’ll also find cultural institutions like the Museum of Chinese in America, and urban parks like Sara Delano Roosevelt Park and Columbus Park on Mulberry Street. The neighborhood is also a quick walk to the Lower East Side, which is so full of nightlife options it’s almost unbearable on weekends.

Most expensive area

Generally, the sweet spot between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges is fairly affordable, especially as you move closer to the waterfront. But as you get closer to Delancey Street and/or the historic Mott and Mulberry Street areas, costs go up. “The price definitely goes up if you’re in the Chinatown/Little Italy center—basically, the streets that are known to be the touristy,” says Padilla.

Max Touhey

This is especially true of Spring Street, which has become almost prohibitively expensive over the last few years. “I won’t call it untouchable, but if you’re going to pay $3,500 for a two-bed on that block, know that it’s not going to be massive,” Padilla says, adding, “You’ll be paying for that location.”

What to look for before signing a lease

Since so many of the available apartments in Chinatown undergo gut renovations before new residents move in, landlords will often offer a month or so of free rent as an incentive to fill spaces quickly. This is a common enough practice that even if your potential landlord doesn’t offer a month of free rent upfront, you might be able negotiate one for your preferred unit.

“Ultimately, if the gross rent is $3,000/month for a two-bedroom, and [landlords] want to get people in because maybe that’s on the high end, but they still need to account for their renovation costs, they’ll offer a month free rent, or a month and a half free rent, or even sometimes two months free rent, and that’ll net the rent down to another price,” says Padilla. “You can put your money to the side and pick at it.”

Since most of these rentals aren’t offered through larger management companies, you’ll have to go through a broker or listing agent (on StreetEasy or another rental site) to find an apartment.

Sample rentals

19 Division Street: A studio apartment in this five-story walkup located only a few blocks from the B/D at Grand Street features high ceilings, a white-tiled bathroom, and a small separate kitchen area. The rent is $1,800/month.

5 Eldridge Street: This renovated one-bedroom fits a queen-sized bed, and boasts beautiful views of the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue and the Manhattan Bridge. The building is a convenient walk to and from the F at East Broadway and the B/D at Grand Street. The rent is $2,705/month.

111 Mott Street: A two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment located between Hester and Mott Street is asking $2,800/month. Amenities include new stainless steel kitchen appliances (including a dishwasher), white marble counters and custom cabinets, a quartz-tiled bathroom with a stall shower, exposed brick, and recessed lighting.

50 Bayard Street: This converted one-bedroom can be easily transformed into a two-bed, and comes with a washer/dryer in the apartment, in addition to five closets. Building amenities include a doorman, elevator, and mailroom, and pets are allowed. The rent is $3,599/month.