In New York City, a hard-to-pass-up lease can often lead to a change in your relationship status.
Joachim Hackl and Helga Traxler live in a garden apartment and have access to a huge backyard created when the owners of four neighboring houses agreed to take down their fences.Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times
In New York, where apartments tend to be small and good ones hard to come by, real estate often plays an outsize role in romance, speeding along some relationships and straining others as couples juggle the stages of courtship with lease terms and the lure of cheaper rent.
At least, it did for Helga Traxler and Joachim Hackl, who now live in their third apartment together — a spacious and meticulously designed one-bedroom. It’s the first place they’ve shared that wasn’t something of a relationship test.
The couple met as roommates in a Williamsburg share in 2014, after a mutual friend unintentionally played Cupid by offering Mr. Hackl his recently vacated room in the four-bedroom apartment where Ms. Traxler lived.
“When our common friend told me, ‘You’re going to have a new roommate. I was like, ‘Ugh! Another new roommate?’ ” said Ms. Traxler. “In the three years I lived there I had so many new roommates I lost count.”
But within a few months, Ms. Traxler, a freelance photographer, and Mr. Hackl, who was doing a fellowship at a small architecture firm at the time, had started dating.
“All the other roommates were away for Thanksgiving,” said Ms. Traxler who, like Mr. Hackl, is Austrian. “We took the chance.”
A relatively short time later, they once again found themselves facing a relationship decision when Mr. Hackl was accepted to a master’s program in Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Practices in Architecture at Columbia University, which came with a tempting offer of student housing. The apartment was a tiny one-bedroom on 112th Street in Morningside Heights for $1,500 a month.
After talking, they agreed that, rather than make theirs a cross-borough affair, they’d move into the apartment together. Since they were both in the country on visas, they didn’t know whether they’d get another chance to live in Manhattan.
“If this happened back in Austria, it’s not something we probably would have done,” Ms. Traxler said. “But I think it’s a typical New York thing. It made sense versus having two New York apartments and having to travel to see each other.”
And, having lived together as roommates for about a year before moving to Manhattan, there weren’t many surprises. “You’ve already seen how the other person acts in their natural habitat,” said Mr. Hackl.
Still, the apartment was only about 360 square feet, with a big bedroom and hardly any living space, which presented an issue as they were both, essentially, working from home during that period.
“Looking back, I’m very surprised it worked out so well,” said Ms. Traxler, who credited differing schedules and having a gym nearby to get their aggression out with keeping them sane.
$1,887 | Bedford-Stuyvesant
Helga Traxler, 35, and Joachim Hackl, 34
Occupation: Ms. Traxler is a photographer and Mr. Hackl is an exhibition designer at the Brooklyn Museum.
Having a landlord who is an architect: They both appreciate how thoughtfully designed the apartment is.
Almost everyone they know lives in Brooklyn: ““We love to have people over,” said Ms. Traxler. “It was really hard to get people to come up to Morningside Heights. I knew I had to put the effort in or I’d never see my friends.”
The difference between Manhattan and Brooklyn: “We talked to our old neighbors a little, but here our neighbors really care for each other,” said Mr. Hackl. “They’re really friendly. It’s been fun to get to know people.”
When Mr. Hackl finished his two-year program, they had to give up the apartment. Ms. Traxler had grown to love the convenience of the neighborhood — a one-minute walk to the subway, a 20-minute train ride to Midtown, and a 24-hour grocery store nearby. But with a budget of $2,000 a month, they knew they couldn’t afford to stay in the area.
As they started looking in Brooklyn, they realized how difficult it was to get a lease in New York as foreigners with limited credit history. A promising lead — their friends, who were leaving a two-bedroom, recommended the couple to their landlord — evaporated after the landlord decided to turn the listing over to a broker rather than take them.
They were at a friend’s birthday party, talking about losing the apartment, when a couple who owned a brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant overheard them. The tenants in their garden apartment were leaving and the space was available.
“It was a great coincidence,” said Mr. Hackl. The apartment was $1,887 a month and much nicer than anything else they’d seen. The landlords, a German artist with an architectural background and her husband, whom they knew a little socially before moving in, had renovated it to a very high standard, including installing triple-paned windows that, when closed, eliminate all outside noise. (The brownstone is renovated to passive house standards, which also means it stays cool in the summer.) Their apartment also has access to a huge shared backyard — their landlords and the owners of three adjacent houses agreed to take down the fences between their spaces.
They moved in two years ago, installing twin desks in the living room, though Ms. Traxler works all over the apartment and Mr. Hackl now has a full-time job as an exhibition designer at the Brooklyn Museum.
“You work everywhere you can put your laptop,” he said to her. “I nap everywhere I can put my butt.”
Ms. Traxler noted that it was nice to have enough space that they can both hang out or work in the apartment without having to be in the same room. “And if we need some time for ourselves, there’s a door that can be closed.”
Since moving in, they’ve filled the space with art from friends, plants, a sofa (their last place was too small for one), and many books — which, for a couple who has to reapply for visas every few years, is the riskiest element of their living situation.
“When we met, we were both like, ‘If you see a good book, you buy it,” said Mr. Hackl. “So we have a lot of books. Friends come over and ask, ‘Are these all your books?’ ”
“But that’s what makes it home,” said Ms. Traxler. “You want to be comfortable. You don’t want to think, ‘What if I ever move?’ ”
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