With housing in New York City an increasingly scarce and costly commodity, and under the hoary “two can live as cheaply as one” rule, logic would seem to dictate that couples would move heaven and earth to place themselves under a single roof.
Many people set up housekeeping together simply to help foot the rent bill. But some couples, both those in longtime relationships and the officially married, follow a less-traveled path. They live in separate homes — on different floors of the same building, down the block from one another, in different neighborhoods, even in different boroughs.
Some who go this route contend that separate spaces not only reduce friction in a relationship but keep it lively, even sizzly, freed from such mundane concerns as whose turn is it to empty the dishwasher and by the way, did anyone pay the rent?
Especially for older New Yorkers, more set in their ways, the idea can offer considerable allure. Perhaps each person cares passionately about living in a certain neighborhood and neither wants to compromise. And after multiple marital breakups, the world of joint mortgages and matching towels may hold little charm.
In a city in which even shoebox-size apartments carry hefty price tags, real estate calculations play a critical role. Who dares jettison a rent-stabilized Classic 6 or an affordable space in a pricey neighborhood like the Village? And how many people can squeeze into a studio the size of a pantry?
A recent blizzard of statistical studies and two newish books — “Living Happily Ever After — Separately” by Lise Stryker Stoessel and “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone” by Eric Klinenberg — document what sociologists call living apart together, or L.A.T.
“The arrangement has surprising appeal, perhaps because it protects against the constant churning in people’s domestic lives,” said Mr. Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University. “Many people who live alone are in relationships that are quite meaningful. And the arrangement is especially attractive in New York, which has such a thriving public culture and little stigma about how people live their lives.”
A common reason couples live under separate roofs is that they’ve always done it that way, making the arrangement less a conscious decision than confirmation of the status quo, as it was for Michael Kenny, 62, a lawyer with Citigroup, and Ingrid Doyle, the woman with whom he shares his life. They met in an unlikely setting — the dentist’s office. She was a hygienist, he was a patient, and they’ve been a couple since shortly after their first date in 2000, albeit rooted to separate and stylistically opposite habitats.
His is a rent-stabilized two-bedroom in a rehabilitated tenement on West 116th Street in South Harlem, his home since 1997, for which he pays under $2,000 a month. Much of the furniture is vintage golden oak dating back to his undergraduate years at Brown.
“Because let’s face it,” Mr. Kenny said, “I’m an old dog.”
Ms. Doyle, who is about a decade younger, lives more elegantly in a seven-room prewar co-op on West 143rd Street in northwest Harlem that she bought 20 years ago for $25,000. Her space is wreathed with 11 windows, and includes such amenities as a dining room and the outline of a fireplace discovered during a recent renovation.
“It wasn’t really a decision,” Mr. Kenny said of the arrangement. Both he and Ms. Doyle have grown children from previous marriages who are sometimes in residence. “Plus we’re not newlyweds,” he said. “We’re grown adults.”
Despite different addresses, their lives overlap with an easy rhythm. They vacation together. They see each other most evenings, with him usually staying at her place, the tidier of the two. And although some couples who live this way worry about a loss of daily intimacy — the unexpected hug or the soothing words after a bad dream, Ms. Doyle has no reservations about their lifestyle. “It’s hard to think of downsides,” she said. “Sometimes I miss him, but he’s just a $7 taxi ride away.”
He, in turn, walks the 30 blocks to her place or jumps on the subway. And his reservations are minimal. “I miss the casual comfort of being around someone,” Mr. Kenny said. “But I’ve lived alone for so many years, I think changing would be hard. I have my ways, my possessions. It’s the old saw, that strong fences make good neighbors. A door that can close makes for a good relationship.”
The idea of a couple living under separate roofs can still raise eyebrows, which is why many two-roof couples remain skittish about going public about their situation. They worry about losing a killer apartment or simply jinxing a good thing. Some are loath to admit to being party to such an arrangement, afraid that it might signal that a relationship isn’t serious.
But in a city like New York, the two-roof route has understandable appeal, especially for couples with an escape hatch, a k a a summer house, and no children. Unlike sprawling suburban houses, few New York homes come equipped with a basement to hole up in, or a top-floor bedroom that a spouse can use as an office. And for people whose homes have soared in value over the years, two roofs can also make long-term financial sense.
“In New York, good real estate is hard to get, and so people are reluctant to give up a rent-stabilized apartment,” Mr. Klinenberg said. “That, not always the relationship, is the real source of security. Whatever happens, you know you can always move back. The real anxiety springs from trying to find a place and being afraid you’ll be priced out. And so if a couple has two great apartments, both people are reluctant to give them up. There may be a short-term savings, but people fear the long-term expense if the relationship doesn’t work out.”
“The underlying terror,” Mr. Klinenberg added, only half in jest, “is that you might have to move to Jersey City.”
Such were the fears of Robert Fontanelli and Rolf Sjogren, two art directors in their early 50s, who lucked into affordable Manhattan spaces in the ’90s and couldn’t picture relinquishing them, despite a relationship that’s been going strong since they met nearly six years ago.
Mr. Fontanelli, who is also an artist, lives in a one-bedroom in a 1929 Tudor Deco building on Irving Place in Gramercy. The space is noisy and the kitchen just four by five feet, but the apartment was a deal when Mr. Fontanelli bought it 15 years ago for $138,000.
Mr. Sjogren, who works at Gallery Stock, a photo agency, got an even better deal, a 14th-floor studio on Horatio Street in the Village that he bought 20 years ago for $62,000. At about 450 square feet, the apartment is beyond cozy, but thanks to a spectacular unobstructed view of downtown Manhattan, light floods the space well into the evening.
The two became a couple within months of their meeting. “We’re very permanent, very happy,” Mr. Sjogren said. “I can see myself growing old with Robert, something I never felt before.”
But real estate worries keep them rooted to their separate berths, “because even if we sold both apartments,” Mr. Fontanelli said, “and got, say, $1 million, what can you buy in New York for $1 million?”
One night a week they spend solo, but on most evenings, one makes the picturesque 22-minute walk to the other’s apartment. Like college roommates, they sometimes share clothes, because both men wear roughly the same size, and as Mr. Fontanelli summed up their wardrobe, “A black shirt is a black shirt.”
Misgivings about the “here today, there tomorrow” pattern of his days occasionally wash over Mr. Sjogren. “Sometimes I think this is not how I pictured my life,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder, what’s wrong with me that I don’t live with my partner. Plus the schlepping back and forth between apartments can tire me out a little. But if it preserves the relationship and makes us happy, why should we change? People say it’s not real if you don’t live together, but I can’t imagine it being any realer than this.”
Real estate agents see glimpses of these yours-and-mine arrangements when they’re asked to find a new apartment for one member of a couple, as happened to Jenet Levy, a Halstead broker. Her client was half of a Hell’s Kitchen pair who had lived together on and off for seven years, “very long-term, very devoted,” as Ms. Levy summed up the relationship. “But she worked long, crazy hours and it bothered her to see him sleeping a lot and being what appeared to her as lazy. The woman also objected to what she described as ‘food I do not like’ in the refrigerator.”
In July, Ms. Levy found her an apartment in the West Village, close enough to her partner’s place to allow him to make regular visits to her cats, to whom he’d grown deeply attached. “They’re a great couple,” Ms. Levy said, “as long as they maintain separate apartments.”
Can separate roofs help cement a relationship? Janice Handler, a retired lawyer in her late 60s, and her husband, Norman Ilowite, 85, a divorced doctor whom she married in 1978, swear that they can. Dr. Ilowite spends most of the year aboard a 40-foot boat anchored off the Jersey Palisades. Ms. Handler’s home is a small two-bedroom in Carnegie Hill that she bought 20 years ago for under $200,000. The couple spend weekends on the boat and winters in her apartment. Henry, their basset hound, shuttles back and forth.
“At first we did this because Norman wanted to live on the boat,” Ms. Handler said. “To be honest, I wasn’t 100 percent thrilled with the idea, but I decided to go with the flow because I wanted this man and I didn’t want to leave New York. Now it’s 35 years later, and I’d choose this arrangement in a heartbeat.”
But she knows that in a decade it will be considerably harder for her husband to move between his place and hers. “I can see the handwriting on the wall,” Ms. Handler said. She hopes for five more years.
Also keeping one eye on the clock is Veronica Kelleher, a former health care administrator, and Kevin Harvey, a retired psychotherapist. The two, both in their 70s, met in 1965 at a church youth group in Brooklyn Heights, where Mr. Harvey still lives in a rent-stabilized one-bedroom. Her home is a rent-stabilized $1,000-a-month walk-up on Washington Place with high ceilings and French doors.
They have been a couple for 48 years this month and were married six years ago. That both are independent and have different tastes — she likes evenings at the theater while he’d rather stay home and listen to National Public Radio — gave the setup an emotional imperative.
“Early on, I might have wanted us to move in together,” Ms. Kelleher said. “But I’m not sure the relationship would have been so good if we’d lived in the same place. I always say, we need a river between us.”
Still, she suspects they might opt for a single roof if one of them became seriously ill. “Even with something like the flu,” she said, “it’s hard to pick up everything and go to comfort the person. When you’re sick, it’s nice to have someone near you.”
Friday, September 13, 2013