Photo by Roderick Aichinger
For most people, moving day is a dreaded day – especially in a busy, crowded place like New York City. But Felix Zeltner, 34, and his wife Christina Horsten, 33, are planning to move 12 times in 12 months, all in the pursuit of the perfect (and affordable) New York apartment.
The couple, who are parents to 20-month old daughter Emma, are calling the adventure 12×12. The idea to try a dozen neighborhoods in as many months grew out of their own frustration at the rising cost of living in the city. The average one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan rents for an $3,359 per month, according to the latest Manhattan Rental Market Report.
The couple moved to New York City from Berlin, Germany four years ago when Horsten’s employer, the German newswire service Deutsche Presse-Agentur, named her its New York correspondent. Horsten grew up in Germany but was born in New York.
“At first we went to [Manhattan’s] Upper East Side, where my family had lived, and then we got priced out,” said Horsten. “Then we moved to Park Slope, [Brooklyn,] and we got priced out there. It was tiring. We didn’t want that to keep happening.”
When their Park Slope landlords announced a $400 monthly rent hike, they felt overwhelmed by the prospect of finding a new apartment.
“We looked around and thought all of these different neighborhoods were so interesting,” Horsten said. “At first it was this crazy idea, that maybe we could try so many of them.” Their German friends thought they were crazy. New Yorkers, on the other hand, were far more enthusiastic.
“[Our New York friends] had such enthusiasm and so many contacts. So all of a sudden we thought, maybe we can do this,” said Zeltner.
They’re hoping to live in a dozen different neighborhoods across all five of New York City’s boroughs thanks to the kindness of New Yorkers and some serious downsizing.
‘This might not work.”
In preparation of their big move, the couple took a hard look at their possessions and went immediately into purge mode.
“We arrived in New York with one suitcase each, and somehow we ended up with so much stuff over the years,” Horsten said. They donated many of the things they no longer needed to New York City nonprofit Housing Works.
Meanwhile, Zeltner, who is self-employed and works on a variety of media and startup projects, told his wide swath of professional contacts about his family’s plan.
His friend and collaborator, Amol Sarva, made the family a generous offer: For the first month of their experiment, Sarva offered to let them stay rent-free at East of East, an apartment building in trendy Long Island City, Queens. Sarva, a startup founder and architect, designed and constructed the building in 2012. In exchange for a month-long stay in one of Sarva’s vacant lofts, the couple agreed to pay for utilities and supply their own furniture. When they move to their next spot, they will leave their furniture behind for Sarva to use to stage apartments.
“Felix is a dreamy adventurer,” Sarva told MagnifyMoney. “When he told me he was going to just unhook from his terrible apartment and go peripatetic like Socrates, I thought … let me give them a place to crash for a few weeks while we renovate this apartment.”
The couple hasn’t completely decided which neighborhoods they will move to from month to month. As of now, only August is a sure thing. They found a place to rent in Chinatown. As for the next 10 months, “We are not really sure,” Zeltner said.
“This has been so freeing, so liberating. But the fact that we don’t know where we’re going to live in September, that’s not such a cool feeling,” he added. “This is an experiment. It might not work.”
Finding mostly-free digs for their first month was a lucky break they don’t reasonably expect to replicate. They plan to keep working full-time and pay their way the rest of the year, looking for furnished apartments that rent for $3,000 a month. Through a newsletter they launched with their website, they’re hoping to crowdsource tips about affordable rentals from their subscribers.
“This is like a crowdfunded project, without the funding,” Zeltner said. “We need more New Yorkers reaching out to us, whether it’s recommending a neighborhood, telling us about a place their auntie rents, or helping us move. We can only do this if people continue to help.”
After a reporter at local news site DNAinfo wrote about their project, a woman contacted the couple to offer to let them house-sit her Upper West Side, Manhattan, apartment for free in March 2017.
Other help has come in the form of discounted services, including an offer from moving box rental company Gorilla Bins.
The couple is “deeply appreciative” of the assistance and support they have received, Zeltner said, and they plan to give back in several ways.
At every 12×12 apartment, they will host a large dinner party for their temporary neighbors. The couple are also planning to launch a podcast series about their neighborhood experiences and discoveries, featuring many interviews with locals.
Ideally, the couple said, they will find enough apartments to keep the project going for all 12 months and ultimately settle on the perfect neighborhood to raise their daughter. But, for now, the project is really about exploring the city.
“[We] can wake up and have a Uruguayan breakfast, go to a Nigerian neighborhood for lunch, have coffee with Italians, and end the day at an old American diner with a burger and a milkshake,” Zeltner said. “You can’t get that diversity of experience in any other city. We want to experience as much as that as possible.”