Summer Reflections 2010 – Post #6

John Hughes just graduated from SIPA and during his second year of study worked in our office.  He is spending the better part of the summer in the office to assist with projects and help fill in for a staff member on maternity leave.  John is set up for a job in Washington, D.C. and will be moving there in August (our second largest alumni network in the world is in D.C if you were interested).

I asked John to reflect a bit on his experience as a SIPA student and contribute to the blog over the summer.  This is his sixth entry.


Many incoming students have called us recently to inquire about housing.  Thus, I thought I’d give my two cents on some housing options and what to consider when looking for a place.

First of all, if you are lucky enough to get Columbia housing I’d say go ahead and take it.  I know many of you are hoping for this option, and just to be clear it is not easy to get.  SIPA gets a certain number of housing allocations from the University, and there are not nearly enough of these to go around.  Allocations are generally based on the distance a candidate lives from New York at the time of application, with those living further away given preference.  This is further broken down into three types of housing: single housing in which students are allocated a bedroom in a shared 2-4 bedroom apartment, couples/married housing in which a couple is given a studio or one-bedroom, and family housing for those students who are coming with children.

Most of you will fit into the single student category.  If you do fall into this category and already live in the U.S. I would say it’s extremely unlikely that you will get a spot.  If you are living abroad you have a much better shot, though you still very well may not get it.  If you are a couple or have kids you have a much higher likelihood of getting a place, though this is still based on distance at time of application.  I was lucky enough to get a one-bedroom because I am married and lived in California at the time of application.  I was fully expecting not to get this housing, however, and was prepared to go on an apartment search in August if it didn’t work out.

The bottom line is that most of you will not get Columbia housing.  Have no fear, however, as this is true every year and students always find places to live.  All it takes is a little effort on your part:  The neighborhoods around Columbia (Morningside Heights/Harlem/Hamilton Heights/Upper West Side) have thousands of apartments, and most of these neighborhoods (except for the Upper West Side) have relatively cheap rents compared to the rest of Manhattan.  The section of the Upper West Side north of 96th street (until 110th street where it becomes Morningside Heights/Harlem) usually has comparable rents to the places I mentioned further north, especially the further you live from Broadway.  Broadway itself, and the streets west of it towards the river, are just as expensive as the rest of the Upper West Side further south.

Many students choose to live in the neighborhoods I mentioned above since they are either within walking distance or a short subway/bus ride to campus.  Such closeness has many advantages since students tend to spend quite a lot of time at SIPA (see my previous blog post) and it’s nice to not have to go far to get home after a long day.  I lived two blocks from school and really enjoyed the convenience, though the tradeoff was that Morningside Heights is not a very exciting place.  Nevertheless, all of the neighborhoods I’ve mentioned thus far have easy access to the rest of the city on the subway so they’re not so bad.  Expect to pay between $800-$1200 for a shared place in one of these neighborhoods.

Some students at SIPA decide that being close to school is less important to them than living in an exciting neighborhood where they can fully enjoy New York.  These students live further downtown in Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea, the west/central/east Village, Soho etc.  Though these neighborhoods certainly have much more to offer in terms of bars/restaurants etc., they are also significantly more expensive than the neighborhoods I mentioned before.  Some students are able to find shared apartments in these neighborhoods that are not much more expensive than the neighborhoods further north, but the tradeoff is that they generally get a shoebox-sized apartment.

If you decide to live in one of these neighborhoods you should carefully consider transportation.  Living in a neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan will make commuting much easier and faster than living in a neighborhood on the east side (you can get from the West Village to Morningside Heights in 25 minutes door-to-door during rush hour).  That said, the east side has some cool spots that could make the extra 10-15 minutes worth it for you.

Some students also decide to move to other parts of New York City.  Though I knew a couple people in Astoria, Queens (which is a nice spot if you don’t mind a 45 minute bus to school), the vast majority of these students move to the inner parts of Brooklyn.  Though rents in Brooklyn can be a bit cheaper than Manhattan, this isn’t really true for the good neighborhoods with easy subway access.  It’s true that these neighborhoods are still cheaper than luxury Manhattan places, but for your typical walk-up that a grad student is looking for the rent savings will be minimal.  However, there are many really great neighborhoods in the closer parts of Brooklyn and students who choose to live here do so because the neighborhoods actually feel like neighborhoods and are a bit more laid back than Manhattan.

If you choose this route expect your commute to take 45 minutes to an hour, though this isn’t so bad if you’re the type of person who can get homework done on the train.  Others like the fact that their life down there is completely separate from their SIPA life, and it gives them a good escape.  If you do go for Brooklyn I would highly recommend finding a place that is within a few blocks of a subway stop or else your commute will be even longer.

Regardless of where you decide to live, it’s a good idea to give yourself at least a couple weeks to find a place if you don’t get Columbia housing.  The New York rental market is very tight and can be cutthroat, so it’s a good idea to be somewhat aggressive in your search.  Most good places will rent within a few days of them being posted, so be prepared to take a place right away if you like it.  This means bringing a copy of your letter stating that you’ll be a student at Columbia (they usually ask for job proof but obviously as students you don’t have this) and your checkbook.  It’s also a good idea to have a bank statement and/or other proof that you are able to pay the rent (a copy of your financial aid statement showing that you’ll be receiving loans might work for this purpose though I’m not sure).  Make sure to look at a few places, but at the same time you should go for a place if you like it, even if it’s the first one you see.

The best place to look for apartments in New York is on Craigslist:

It’s a good idea to look for no-fee apartments, since if you use a broker you’ll usually have to pay them 15% of the annual rent.  Also, if you do plan to live with roommates I highly recommend reaching out to other SIPA students.  Those of you starting in the Fall should have access to a Google Group for the Class of 2012 where you can post that you are looking for roommates.  Many students in my class did this and most found it fairly easy to link up with like-minded SIPA folks.

Despite the seeming difficulty of finding a place, everybody I knew at SIPA found a good one.  People chose to live in different parts of the city for different reasons, but regardless of where they lived I don’t know anybody who lived in a bad place.  If you put in the effort you’ll find a good place, too.