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The L train shutdown is a year away—what effect will it have on rent prices?

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Prices in Williamsburg have flatlined, and renters may be able to score a deal—if they’re willing to deal with a potential commuting nightmare

Big changes are coming to Williamsburg as a result of the L train shutdown.
Max Touhey

With less than a year to go until the impending L train shutdown, renters who live in neighborhoods along the line are starting to consider their options. The 15-month shutdown will halt L service between Brooklyn and Manhattan while the MTA repairs the damaged Canarsie tunnel, forcing at least 225,000 daily commuters to find alternate means of transportation.

And though the MTA and the Department of Transportation have proposed a number of substitutes for the L—additional service on the J and M lines, lengthened and more frequent G trains, and shuttle buses, to name a few—those drawn to neighborhoods like Williamsburg or Bushwick because of their proximity to Manhattan will have to reckon with a considerable loss of convenience.

For some, the shutdown comes with an upside: rent discounts. According to a StreetEasy report from March, average rents in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick saw a 0.6 percent decrease from the year prior, a downward shift that the listings site attributes—in part, at least—to the coming loss of service. The site’s Q1 2018 data shows that North Brooklyn rents are essentially flat, but senior economist Grant Long says that renters can expect some downward movement as the shutdown looms closer.

“I think it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the more that we overlap with that period, the more rents are going to fall,” Long says. “The subway is a crucial part of how New Yorkers get around, and when you take that away, it’s going to make the property immediately around it less valuable.”

Williamsburg is the area most likely to be affected, since the neighborhood’s proximity to Manhattan via the L train has drawn throngs of renters and luxury real estate developers over the last few decades.

According to Justin Rubinstein, an agent with Douglas Elliman, renters in luxury properties are already reaping the benefits. “I have seen a lot of renters working to negotiate their rents because landlords would like them to stay close to Williamsburg,” Rubinstein says. “Some of the bigger buildings—your major rental buildings with the big landlords—have been offering more incentives to get their tenants to stay.”

Those incentives include extra months of free rent; no rent increase or a rent decrease of a few percentage points from the previous year’s rent; and for those signing new leases, covered broker’s fees. At Fifth and Wythe, a 164-unit luxury rental developed by L&M Development Partners, nearly every apartment currently available on StreetEasy is being offered without a broker’s fee and with some kind of rental concession.

Rubinstein notes that it’s not certain whether those incentives are thanks to the impending shutdown or the increase in Williamsburg’s housing supply. “It’s a little more obvious in Williamsburg than it is in other neighborhoods, but the market has slowed down in general,” Rubinstein says. “But anecdotally, you are able to get more incentives in Williamsburg now, in big doorman buildings, than in the past. That indicates some trepidation on the renters’ part, when they’re thinking about renewing. They don’t necessarily want to be there next year when the L train does shut down.”

And with peak rental season—May to October—on the way, it’s likely at least a chunk of neighborhood residents will start heading elsewhere. “I think it’s really hard for people to assess fully how they’re going to adjust their plans, but I think it’s safe to assume at this point that life will change in Williamsburg pretty dramatically,” Long says. “A lot of the people that I’ve anecdotally talked to haven’t decided yet. I think a lot of this is going to come down to people looking at the leases and then the rates at which they’re going renew, and making some very tough decisions.”

The Halsey Street station along the L line.
Max Touhey

Jenny Kutner, 26, has lived off the Grand Street L stop for the last four years; she and her sister signed a two-year lease that ends in August 2019. “We’re viewing that four-month period as a trial period,” Kutner says. Kutner’s very attached to her neighborhood and her apartment, and hadn’t planned on vacating even after the L goes down. But with the shutdown starting to seem more real, Kutner says, “I am recognizing that that is something that might have to happen.”

Kutner is currently a fellow with an NYC-specific civic leadership program, and has gotten an eyeful of how the city and state handle infrastructure, which has made her more nervous about the shutdown. She’s not convinced the MTA is prepared to weather the coming storm. “It is going to be as bad as people are worried about it being,” Kutner says. “I want to have faith in the city’s ability to pull it off, but I’m really skeptical to see what the bus situation is going to look like.”

She adds, “If I can stay in an apartment I love without my rent going up, I think I can tough it out, but I also haven’t lived through it yet. It could be really bad and I could want to leave.”

Williamsburg residents may be the hardest hit by the shutdown, but residents in L-adjacent neighborhoods with alternate transit routes (see: Ridgewood, Greenpoint) will still have to contend with inconveniences, like longer commute times and overcrowding on the J, M, Z, and G lines. And they’re not getting the benefit of a rent break: According to Moiz Malik, CFO of Nooklyn, rents are either staying stable or going up in areas serviced by multiple lines.

“Rents have increased in Bushwick/South Williamsburg/Ridgewood where there’s a second option or another option,” Malik tells Curbed NY via email. Malik attributes this to the glut of new developments going up in those neighborhoods, particularly in Bushwick, whose housing stock may attract renters fleeing amenity-filled buildings in areas exclusively serviced by the L.

“There are a lot of new apartments on market in those areas with luxury building amenities, like gyms and such, which have pushed the price up a bit,” says Malik. “They are sometimes $400 to $500 more expensive than a nearby apartment that’s roughly the same size that doesn’t have those same amenities.” According to StreetEasy, median asking rents in Bushwick have increased 0.1 percent over the last year.

Even in places with alternate transportation, residents who use the L regularly are unsure of what their commutes will look like come the shutdown. Greenpoint resident Bea Lund, 26, currently commutes via the L to her job in Manhattan; her lease, which went up by $100/month last year, is up in August, and she and her roommate are trying to decide whether it’s worth staying another year if they see another increase.

“We’ve talked about moving further south to be along the F/G, but I would like to stay here if I knew the change in my commute wouldn’t negatively impact my overall quality of life,” she says. “I take the L to Union Square and there aren’t a lot of reasonable alternatives from here.”

She adds, “My primary concern is about having to re-sign my lease for another year without being certain that the MTA’s solution is going to be adequate. I haven’t heard any viable solutions yet. I can imagine myself being optimistic about it, and then trying to get to work on the first day of the shutdown and realizing what a terrible mess it is.”

The MTA says it’s doing what it can to soften transportation disruptions and to address the needs of North Brooklyn residents. “We’ve had more than 40 public meetings over the last two years on this project, and we had a bunch of meetings earlier this year,” says MTA spokesperson Shams Tarek. “We’re making a big push on public outreach to inform people on the project and to hear their concerns.” (MTA and DOT will hold yet another town hall on the shutdown at Brooklyn’s Progress High School on Wednesday, May 16.)

Additional service on the J and M has been a big part of the MTA’s efforts, and the agency has spent the last eight months (and $163 million) revamping a number of stations along the M line in Ridgewood and Bushwick in an effort to prepare for increased service. That initiative necessitated shutting down a significant stretch of the M in North Brooklyn, and residents say the commuting crush it caused along the L makes them nervous about what will happen in a year’s time.

An M train runs along the Myrtle Viaduct after it reopened in late April, following months of construction.
Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit

Steven Glauber, 31, and his wife have lived near the Myrtle-Broadway station for the last two years. Glauber commutes to Soho every day, and had to contend with the M shutdown for months. “It makes the L train super crowded,” he says. “If the L doesn’t run every three minutes without issue, then it gets super backed up. If you miss one train and it takes seven minutes instead of three, the platform gets super crowded.”

Glauber and his wife intend to renew their lease this year; they expect the shutdown won’t affect their neighborhood as much as it might areas that don’t have alternate service options. In fact, though Ridgewood residents likely won’t see a rent drop when the L goes down—if anything, as Malik points out, rents might go up thanks to the M train—Glauber says the neighborhood has improved in advance of the shutdown.

“I think that we’re lucky. In some ways I think our neighborhood will benefit from the shutdown. They’re actually putting in restaurants and useful stores and renewing old buildings,” he says. “My neighbors are all psyched to be in Ridgewood.”

Still, people are starting to move. Rubinstein notes that neighborhoods like Downtown Brooklyn, Park Slope, and Crown Heights are among the “healthiest” in the city’s rental market—i.e., with the fastest growing rents—as rents in Williamsburg have flatlined. “That may be that people have moved on from Williamsburg to go to those different neighborhoods,” Rubinstein says. “They still want to be in Brooklyn, but they don’t want to be there to see what it’s like when the L train is down.”

Alex Henderson, 32, has lived off the Halsey Street stop in Bushwick for the last four years, but in May, he and his girlfriend signed a lease off the Nostrand Avenue stop in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “When we were looking for apartments, we didn’t consider looking anywhere in my neighborhood,” Henderson says. “The L train shutting down was not something we wanted to deal with.”

And apparently Henderson’s not the only one making the move from North to Central Brooklyn. The manager of his new building, he says, has seen an increase in interest from upcoming L train refugees. “He said, ‘I was just talking to the building owner, the day after you guys put your deposit down, five or six more people toured the building and put down a deposit immediately,’” Henderson says. “I have three friends who just moved to Crown Heights. It seems like [these areas] are the beneficiaries of the L train shutdown.” (According to StreetEasy, in 2018 the median asking rent in Crown Heights went up 3.9 percent from the year prior, though in Bedford-Stuyvesant, it actually decreased 0.1 percent.)

And while renters in exclusively L-serviced areas might think sticking out the shutdown will ultimately net them a better rent deal, they shouldn’t expect more than small concessions from landlords, especially in the newer luxury buildings. “Landlords and owners are just not willing to concede an inordinate amount of money to let renters or owners to come in,” Rubinstein says. “It’s still Williamsburg. It’s one of the best neighborhoods in America.”