A seemingly unstoppable force has finally met its immovable object. After months of speculation and uncertainty, the Metropolitan Transit Authority has announced that the L train, which runs horizontally connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn, will close for 18 months, derailing regular commutes—and, it seems, gentrification in the neighborhoods served by the line.
The shutdown, which is slated to begin in January 2019, has already started to affect the rental market in neighborhoods like Bushwick and Williamsburg, two of the most rapidly gentrifying areas in Brooklyn. This prompts a question: Will inconvenient public transit be enough to halt the spread of gentrification—or will it just change the order of what areas gentrify first?
The closure, announced July 25, is meant to give the city time to fix serious damage caused to the Canarsie Tunnel, which links Manhattan and Brooklyn, during Hurricane Sandy. But not everyone is convinced the MTA picked the most convenient solution for commuters who regularly ride the L. Though residents largely acknowledge the importance of the repair work, many still criticize the decision to close the line in its entirely for the duration of the repairs. And for some, the situation is changing how and where they rent.
Walter Howard, who has lived near the Halsey St. stop for nearly seven years, said he’ll probably move: “I’m going to look at places in Harlem or just, you know, Manhattan in general,” he said. “It just seems cheaper than Brooklyn at this point. How crazy is that? Even if the rent is bigger, it’s going to be impossible to get around from here.”
Howard’s frustration is understandable: He moved to Bushwick specifically because of the low cost of rent and ease of access to Manhattan, where he works. But over the years, both of those selling points for the neighborhood have become less and less reliable. Rising rents have threatened his ability to hold on to his apartment pricing, and now the shutdown is taking away his easy (if slightly long) commute.
That anyone would move to Manhattan to escape the costs of living in Brooklyn would have been unthinkable in the past. But in the last several years, Brooklyn rent has skyrocketed. By May 2015, the median rent in Brooklyn had risen to $2,893, up more than 30 percent since 2010, according to a Miller Samuel appraisal reported by The New York Times.
“It’s unquestionably cheaper to live in some parts of Manhattan than some parts of Brooklyn,” said Phil, a Brooklyn and Manhattan real estate broker, who asked to be identified by first name only because his boss has not authorized him to speak to the press. “Yeah, of course the West Village costs more than Bushwick. But the Lower East Side is cheaper than DUMBO. It just depends on the neighborhood.”
He said many of his clients in the last few months have been trending toward Manhattan. “I’ve definitely noticed a bit of a drop off in interest for areas like Williamsburg,” said Phil. “Bushwick still gets attention because the prices are good and there’s other subway lines, but there was definitely a noticeable shift away since it leaked that they’re closing the L.”
Some of that shift has been toward Manhattan, but some of it hasn’t. Another option some residents are considering is to move further into the heart of Brooklyn. “I’ve been living near Morgan Ave. for many years, but I’m thinking of looking at places near Myrtle-Wyckoff or Broadway Junction because there’s more trains,” said Raquel Flores, a local who works in retail in Manhattan. A spacious apartment is important to Flores, who lives with her husband and four children, so moving outward in Brooklyn seems more appealing to her than closer to Manhattan.
Data show that Flores isn’t alone. In late June, the real estate site Brick Underground asked Streeteasy to crunch numbers on what rent looked like in neighborhoods at each stop on the L train—a study they run annually. Streeteasy compared rent in May 2015 and May 2016, “looking at median rent, price per square foot, and inventory at each stop from Bedford Avenue to Broadway Junction, as well as the year-over-year change in those stats between 2015 and today,” as Brick Underground puts it.
The news that the MTA was considering a L train closure leaked in January 2016—a little more than midway through the compared months. Streeteasy’s data found that in the one-year period between May 2015 and 2016, rent near the Bedford Ave. stop in Williamsburg dropped 11.4 percent—to a median of $3,100. Comparatively, in the one-year period between May 2014 and 2015, rent near the stop in question had risen 3 percent to a median of $3,450.
But it wasn’t just Bedford Ave. Rent within a five-block radius of the Jefferson Ave. L train stop in Bushwick rose 19 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to the study. The next year? Only 0.9 percent. The Halsey St. stop, which is an approximately 20-minute walk from the closest non-L line stop, saw an enormous 12.2 percent drop in rent from 2015.
“I don’t think you’re going to see people uprooting from Bushwick entirely,” said Phil. “More likely, what we’ll start to see is people looking at stops that are closer to hubs. Either the neighborhood near Myrtle-Wyckoff, or maybe DeKalb, which is walking distance. Things like that.”
The data suggest that he is right. Unlike areas such as Halsey St. or Bedford Ave., which are not particularly close to alternate lines, DeKalb Ave. and Myrtle-Wyckoff have seen rising median rent costs. Between 2014 to 2015, rent near the DeKalb Ave. stop dropped 5 percent. But between 2015 and 2016? It rose.
Near the busy Myrtle-Wyckoff subway stop in Bushwick, prices have been either rising or stagnating, but Phil expects them to rise eventually, due to an influx of new developments and the proximity to the M train. This, despite the fact that the neighborhood is further out from Manhattan and rather more dangerous. Higher numbers of crimes are routinely registered on the New York Police Department’s crime map near this stop than they are near, for example, Jefferson Ave.
Elliott Sclar, the director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development and a professor of Urban Planning and International Affairs at Columbia University, suggests that these fluctuating costs along the L line are not likely to have a long-term effect on gentrification in the area. Instead, they might simply be the result of a standard market problem.
“What will happen,” he said, “is that anybody who buys now has to absorb the cost of the time inconvenience from not having the L line. On the other hand, in the future, you’ll get it back. So to some extent, you could say the market price adjustment is kind of capturing the expectations about how this will work. Some people will get a bit of a bargain now, but they have to pay with some sweat equity…but then they’re going to get it back when the L re-opens.”
He said the train closure may not be enough on its own to impact what residents look for in a residential area. He said people considering a neighborhood look at two things: “One, what direction is the neighborhood trending in? And two, am I willing to trade off more travel time for lower money cost or more travel time for more space at the same amount of money?” If the answer to those questions is positive, then the shutdown won’t make much of a difference.
But some are only interested in the cost. “I seriously don’t care where I live,” said Laura Friedman, a New York transplant who lives on the border of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy. “All I want is to find a neighborhood that stays affordable for more than a year. I’m sick of moving, but everywhere I go, rent keeps rising.”
Friedman has been priced out of Alphabet City and East Williamsburg already, and now she’s worried about the rent at her place near the Myrtle-Broadway intersection. “I’m near the J and M trains. I’m just waiting for everyone leaving places near the L to move next door to me and drive my prices up again,” she said.
“She’s right to be worried,” said Phil, when asked about the potential for rent to get driven up in Friedman’s neighborhood. “Even if it doesn’t happen this time, Brooklyn’s getting more expensive.”
Asked if the L train shutdown could halt gentrification in Bushwick and the surrounding neighborhoods, Phil said, “I doubt it. If anything, I think it will just redistribute it for a little while. If you ask me, the only thing that’ll put a hold on gentrification in those areas is when developers figure out that Queens isn’t that far away either.”