Is $660 a month worth smelly neighbors and ID checks?

Should you ditch the loft for a fancy new building?

I was a pretty naive New York City transplant when I uprooted myself from sunny Florida to work in the music biz three years ago. I know the horror stories about our rent are part of the common consciousness, but no one told me that I would literally pay half my pathetic intern-at-a-record-label paycheck to rent out someone’s closet. In between depressive sessions gawking at high-rise condos that I would never be able to afford, I stumbled upon a Craigslist ad promising studios for $500-$600 a month. It sounded like a scam even to me, but it turned out to be artist-only supportive housing run by Common Ground.

After a strenuous application process, I moved from my tiny Hell’s Kitchen sublet into my own studio at the Schermerhorn in downtown Brooklyn and stayed there a year and a half while climbing the ladder at my job and then blowing all my money on taking my keyboard to my singer-songwriter gigs. But was it worth it?

The Schermerhorn in winter. Photos by Jana Fisher.

First, here’s what you get:

1) Your own studio apartment in the building (160 Schermerhorn Street) from 210 – 260 square feet (depending on if you luck out and get the wheelchair-accessible apartment like I did. HOLLA!) including a kitchen with an electric range, convection oven/microwave and refrigerator.

2) 24-hour security guards in the lobby who will act as your doormen, accept all your packages from Amazon and make you want to buy everything online ever.

3) Yoga and cooking classes so small they occasionally become private lessons. Plus, the adult version of cheesy school holiday parties but with free food that’s actually edible!

4) Ability to reserve a practice space and a theater space, both with pianos.

The cost

About $660 per month the first year— $625 in rent, $10 for a 30-channel cable package (this will go away if you have Time Warner Internet installed so get an “on-the-go” service like Clear), and $25 that you pay year-round if you want to ever turn on the air conditioner. The rent goes up 5 percent every year you stay.

Inside the kitchen.


1) The place is clean and well-maintained. You can put in work orders to fix anything broken, and while you may have to harass someone, things will eventually get fixed.

2) The application process creates a filter for artists who are really dedicated and you will meet some great people. I sang on a hip-hop track written by someone from the building and I’m writing a musical with another guy I met there even though I’ve long since moved. You’ll know the artists when you see them— they walk with purpose like they actually have somewhere to go.

3) There are humans in a building office you can actually talk to if you’re having any issues.


1) The application process is hard— you’ll need to submit multiple tax returns, pay stubs and other forms to prove your income— and you’ll have no idea when you’ll move in. If Common Ground is in a rush to fill a new building like the most recent one opening in Brownsville, it can take three months, but wait lists for the existing buildings are all about a year. Of course, if your wait is a long one, you’ll need to resubmit some of the paperwork. For the Schermerhorn, which is specifically intended for low-income folks working in arts and entertainment, you’ll need to talk a bit about your work and provide links to any websites you may have.

A room in The Hegeman, the new Brownsville 161-unit affordable-housing complex which just opened.

2) You’ll need to scan your building ID to get through the gates in the lobby and any visitors will need to show government-issued ID the first time they come— no exceptions. All your friends (and dates) will think you live in a prison.

3) You won’t just live with artists— about two-thirds of the building is occupied by the formerly homeless. Your neighbors will smell. Your neighbors will ask you for change in the elevator. Your neighbors will hang out in the lobby and stare at you creepily for no reason. Rather like college, someone won’t know how to use the stove without setting off the fire alarm and you’ll have to wait downstairs at 3am until the fire truck arrives. You will see people get arrested in the lobby. And there will always be sketchy characters loitering outside the building.

Jana’s apartment.

Is it worth it?

More than a normal apartment building, it feels like a dorm where you’re forced to interact with people you’d normally avoid. All in all, it was a good experience for me, except that I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was unsafe at home. I moved out when I was less broke in order to have a somewhat more normal life, but my friend who’s a guy moved into my old apartment and loves it.

So I say if you’re okay with a little harassment when you come home and, more importantly, you have no shame, go for it!

Find information about how to apply and other buildings on Common Ground’s site.

Follow more of Jana’s starving artist adventures: @janafisher.

6 Comment

  • Oh, so that’s why there’s a bunch of homeless people hanging around Hoyt-Schemerhorn. Tell me, though, did you interact or keep in touch with any of the more stable homeless? There must have been some that were actually improving through this project, right?

    • I did interact with certain people who were normal-ish. One woman who was there through Section 8 gave me a cookbook, and I’d bump into people in the laundry room or at parties that I was friendly with. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great program for keeping folks off the streets, but it doesn’t take the “homeless look” out of the formerly homeless.

  • Slightly off topic, but if you if haven’t heard David Rakoff’s take on Rent and living in a shitty apartment in Brooklyn it’s worth listening to:
    “For years and years I was too scared to even try, so I did nothing. But here’s what I did do: I paid my fucking rent.”

  • I want to know how you ended up in the handicapped room – Jealous! I am still living here at the Schermerhorn, currently looking elsewhere for MORE SPACE! :)