December 4, 2022

Stephanie Diamond Knows How Bad Real Estate Has Gotten

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: Nilaya Sabnis Stephanie Diamond likes to make sure everyone is taken care…

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: Nilaya Sabnis

Stephanie Diamond likes to make sure everyone is taken care of. In her kitchen, she keeps a stack of empty cartons so she can give visitors eggs from the hens in her Hudson Valley yard. She remembers the names and ages of your children, even if she has never met them. She brings snacks. Before we met up in Cold Spring, she made sure I knew which side of the train to sit on to get Hudson River views, and, when I arrived at the station, asked if I needed a bathroom before we set out on a walk. If she schedules a meeting at lunchtime, there will definitely be lunch. “She feeds you,” said one of her friends. “The last time I saw her, she was having a bonfire at her house. I can’t remember what she gave me exactly, but it was something warm and soupy with tea.”

Then there is the Listings Project itself, the real-estate newsletter that Diamond started in 2003, when she was a 27-year-old artist living in Forest Hills, Queens. She was looking for an apartment closer to her grad program at New York University and, as so many people do, reached out to her extended circle of friends and family to see if anyone knew of a place. Diamond — who grew up on the Upper West Side, does community-based art, and is the kind of person who talks to everyone — received a slew of responses, and they kept rolling in even after she’d found a place in the West Village. She decided to share the surplus in a group email, unwittingly volunteering herself as a clearinghouse for the sublets, studio spaces, lease takeovers, room shares, and apartments of everyone she knew (and everyone they knew) for years to come.

“I’ve always been obsessed with housing and home, and I saw a need that was unmet,” Diamond told me. After all, how can you grow up in a place like New York, knowing how hard it is to find a good space and keep it, and not feel compelled to do something with the good spaces that people keep sending you?

For eight years, Diamond ran the Listings Project as an entirely free service while working as an artist and adjunct professor of community art, even as it changed from a sideline into something fairly all-consuming. (Today, it’s still free to subscribe, but since 2011 there has been a fee to post.) In New York, where finding an apartment has always been gladiatorial, the list took off, spreading by word of mouth far beyond Diamond’s personal acquaintances. It now has hundreds of thousands of subscribers and listings in many other cities, as well as for jobs — and to recommend it to anyone these days is to court an eye roll: Of course they’ve heard of the Listings Project.

When it comes to New York real estate, everyone is always looking for an edge, an in, a secret. To overpay for a bad apartment is as common as it is humiliating, whether you have $1,000 a month to spend or $10,000. The Listings Project seemed like a shortcut to — if not an out-of-this-world find — at least something distinctly better than average, a stand-in for the fantastic network of friends you didn’t have. (Or did have but weren’t helpful.) The apartments were affordable-ish — maybe a few hundred dollars less than what you might find on StreetEasy and much, much nicer than what you’d find on Craigslist. For years, the listings looked like they came from a well-connected artist’s greater circle of friends, which, for a while, they did: artfully arranged spaces with good light and plants, furnished with nice Craigslist furniture and enviable stoop finds. There were often books, maybe a cat. A lot of the people who did post were in fact artists or worked in creative or do-goodery fields: architects and academics, people in nonprofits and education. The vibes were good.

And it was practical: You didn’t have to sort through piles of scams and repeat listings blaring out superlatives like MASSIVE TRIPLE MINT SUN-FLOODED. Diamond did that for you, vetting all the listings; creating a community-user agreement, in which listers agreed to interact with all people fairly and openly and honor an honest and fair price, and practice equity, transparency, accountability, collective care, justice, and joy (and if they didn’t, there was someone to complain to); and encouraging users to write personal, honest descriptions of their spaces and what they wanted in a roommate or a tenant. Crucially, there were no broker’s fees. It wasn’t purely altruistic — this was, after all, still New York City, and the housing wasn’t free — but it was a much kinder, gentler way to find an apartment. Even if you never found an apartment through the Listings Project, it made you feel a little better just seeing that decent apartments like that still existed. At least, that is, until last year, when the New York City rental market, never known for its congeniality, reached a new level of bloodsport and the Listings Project became less a respite from the harsher realities of the housing market than a reflection of them.

In June, Diamond and the three people who run the Listings Project with her met at the Joan Mitchell Foundation, an arts organization in the Flatiron District. Everyone lives in a different part of the country, so for a couple days a few times a year, they all convene in person, most often in New York, most often in a pleasant arts-affiliated space. It was the first time that they’d been together since the start of the pandemic. Naturally, the temporary office space was lovely.

That morning, the team was discussing questions for a user survey to help them improve the site during what has, to put it mildly, been a trying time for apartment seekers. After rents plummeted during the first year of the pandemic, seeding hopes that New York might actually become a more interesting, livable city — it seems laughable now, but artists were actually moving into Manhattan for a while — the Manhattan vacancy rate very quickly plunged. Over just a few months in 2021, it plummeted from 11.79 percent to less than 3 percent, as concessions vanished and rents shot up. The median Manhattan rent is now $4,050, the average $5,000. The prevailing theory is that everyone returned to the city at once, for a reopening that never really happened, and sucked up all the available housing, creating a nightmarish rental landscape of 70 percent rental hikes, bidding wars where renters vie to give themselves huge rental hikes and broker’s fees that start at 15 percent and go up from there. Though everyone initially assumed the situation would be temporary when all those leases turned over the following year, the market now seems to be self-perpetuating, so horrible that no one with a decent, reasonably priced apartment dares move.

For months, renters had been emailing the Listings Project, frustrated, asking why prices were so outrageously high and why they weren’t hearing back from anyone. Listers, meanwhile, were receiving, in some cases, hundreds of emails within hours of the weekly newsletter going out — one got more than 600 — and giving up as the pages of emails rolled in. The Listings Project was asking people to at least send auto-responses — not quite the personal touch the site is known for, but better than leaving renters hanging. “Listers are like, ‘How can you be doing this?’” Diamond says. “We’re like, ‘It’s not us, it’s the market.’”

While working in the city, Diamond was staying at her mother’s apartment on the Upper West Side. She left New York six years ago, when she was 40, and since 2018 has lived on the grounds of an old summer camp in the Hudson Valley with her husband, Ethan Kerr, who works as a racial-equity consultant and coach (he is white). They have an 8-year-old daughter, nine hens, and one rooster. Diamond has something of the vibe of a camp counselor herself: capable and upbeat, with an inclination toward practical but playful clothing — blouses and jeans or a jean skirt paired with iridescent Birkenstocks or neon New Balance sneakers. She got a smartphone only last year. But she is very much a product of New York City. From kindergarten through 12th grade, she attended Calhoun, the progressive private school on the Upper West Side where the classrooms are open-concept from the third grade on. Her father was third-generation real estate. (She describes the business as small and family run, with a few buildings in Brooklyn and Queens.) Diamond says she was “a very active, never still” child, one who skip-walked around her family’s Upper West Side apartment — her mother, an artist, did it up in a contemporary, minimalist fashion — and was often sent out to roam the nearby cultural institutions on rainy days. She still likes to move around a lot and co-founded a local chapter of 5 Rhythms Dance, a movement-medication practice started in the late 1970s.

Diamond considers the Listings Project to be both a community and a form of social-practice art — a collaborative, socially engaged discipline that works with people as its medium. Over the years, she has implemented a number of measures to try to ensure that it operates as “a respectful, life-affirming, and justice-focused community.” The staff vets all the listings, looking not just for scams and illegal fees but discriminatory or problematic language, like calling an area “safe.” There are guidelines on how to write and respond to posts in accordance with the site’s community agreements and values — embodying concepts such as inclusion, transparency, accountability, and collective self-care. The postings often contain language like, “We are looking for a harmonious and friendly living situation with warm, communicative, and accountable people” and “We try to cultivate a home that is a warm, friendly, restorative, and peaceful place to come home to.”

The ethos is educational, not punitive: There are posts on issues like housing discrimination; what landlords can legally request of rental applicants; and what landlords can legally request but may want to reconsider, like background checks. If people try to post listings that violate the community agreements, Listing Project staff will send them back for edits, with an explanation. If users report banned behavior, like a landlord asking applicants for the highest and best offer, that landlord will be kicked off. “We are offering people a choice to opt into a different way of being, even in the cutthroat world of real estate,” Diamond says. “Where we can lean into community as the basis for how we find our homes.”

But for all its good intentions, the Listings Project is also a business, one that cannot disentangle itself from the housing markets it operates in. It does not allow price gouging, and the staff will look up past listings or request a copy of a renter’s lease if they suspect it, but citywide rent hikes have made it hard to define what constitutes gouging, which, at the moment, is pretty much synonymous with market rate. It’s not uncommon to see a two-bedroom in Clinton Hill that was renting for $2,500 in 2019 renting for $3,500 today, which is excessive, grotesque, and also the going rate for a Clinton Hill two-bedroom.

The listings themselves have changed somewhat over the years, mirroring the city itself. There are a fair amount of new development sublets and lease takeovers, and many brownstone apartments are fancier than they once were. When the Listings Project started, a lot of the people renting out spaces in Brooklyn had done their own basic renovations. Brownstones in Bed-Stuy could sometimes be had for less than half a million, and buyers often had tenants on two or three floors. There might be a fancy stove from Build It Green in one of the units, but the countertops would be butcher block. These days, those same houses start at around $2.5 million and have rain showers and marble countertops.

“The worst part is when people are like, ‘How can you share these rents, they’re exorbitant,’” says Diamond. “People who have been on it for 15 years are like, ‘Listings Project has really changed.’ We want to have apartments that are market rate or lower, and if we don’t allow the market-rate ones, then …” She pauses. “I know I’m doing good, but I have this shame. The market is disgusting.”

There are a lot of gray areas, too, like the guy who tried to sublet his loft for $4,000 a month, then upped it to $9,000 the next week. When the team contacted him and told him he couldn’t do that, he said he understood but that he’d just been hit with a huge rent increase and was hoping that by renting his loft out at premium over the summer, he could afford to stay there the other months of the year. While you obviously don’t want a site where sublets get rented out for twice what they actually cost, that tenant seems more sympathetic than the landlord who raises the rent $1,000 a month from one year to the next just because he can. They’re both reacting to market conditions, but the loft tenant is motivated by desperation, whereas the landlord is motivated by straightforward greed.

“We can only control so much,” says Scott Trudeau, the site’s chief technology officer. “We’re not allowing the brokers, the scammers, the fees. But invariably inventory is really low and rent is really high. Everyone is fighting over the limited supply of homes. We feel trapped, too. We wish this wasn’t happening.”

Cold Spring is Diamond’s favorite walkable town in the area — the thing she misses most about living in the city is walking everywhere, she says — and when we meet up there, she seems to know everyone. She greets Jane, the owner of one of the buildings on Main Street, then dips into Supplies for Creative Living, an art-supply store that smells of sage and has witchy dried flowers in the back, where she chats with Grace, the owner. By the river, she says hello to kids from her daughter’s school on a field trip, then catches up with Juanita, the proprietor of the Mexican restaurant just outside of town where we stop for lunch. While we’re eating, a photo producer she knows stops by our table to say hi and Diamond calls out to a psychologist she knows who is walking to her office across the street. She even stops to talk to the public-works guys painting crosswalks.

Diamond decided to leave New York in large part because she had never really lived anywhere else, save for the four years she spent at the Rhode Island School of Design, and she was tired of being inundated by memories. “I have a photographic memory and it’s triggered by the visual. By the time I was 40, I was just overstimulated. I wanted to live in the present.” She and Kerr decided on Berkeley: It had sidewalks, beautiful houses and gardens, and holistic medicine and spiritual scenes that appealed to her. She also thought it would be interesting to live close to Silicon Valley, given that the Listings Project is tech company–adjacent. (She has neither funders nor debt, but says she would be open to selling or taking on investors, as long as the site’s vision is honored.) But she hated Berkeley. “It was the only place in my life where I wasn’t part of a community. I didn’t feel part of it,” she says. “I love to talk to strangers, but there was no energy exchange. You think people don’t make eye contact in New York, but they actually do.” They bought their house upstate in 2018. “When we moved upstate, I thought, Maybe I won’t make friends here either, but at least I can see my old friends.” She did not find it through the Listings Project.

She asks that I not describe the house in too much detail, worried that it will sound too nice. It is nice — a spacious three-bedroom, decorated with art by her friends and family. But isn’t it fitting that the founder of the Listings Project would have a nice house? “I don’t have shame in having my home,” Diamond says. “It’s just that I’m aware of and acknowledge the privilege I have to be able to buy a home. I am a white, Jewish female body from the Upper West Side. I’m struggling with helping my listers find homes because they’re desperate and scrambling.”

“I’m not a housing provider,” she continues. “We’re a listing platform; that’s what we are, that’s the best we can do. But I’ve always felt for people. I want to help as much as I can. But I can’t help as much as I used to.”

Not shame, then, but discomfort, with having something so nice while others in the community she has created can’t get anything at all. Much as we might wish otherwise, real estate is deeply, fundamentally, unfair — a combination of timing, contacts, luck, and especially money. Diamond tried to create a place where finding housing was fair and equitable, but nothing about housing in New York City is fair and equitable, especially now. And this, when I talk to people who were frustrated by the Listings Project, was what irritated them most: not that the New York housing market was horrible — that they took as a given — but that the Listings Project presented itself as an anti-oppressive, equitable community based on collective self-care, when you just had to scroll through the listings to see that it eventually all came down to money. It had to.

“When I first started receiving the newsletters, it really did feel like a place where the rent was more reasonable, where you didn’t have to pay a broker’s fee and you were interacting with another human being, not a management company, but at this point it’s just as bad as StreetEasy,” said Alex Nelson, a photographer who’d been looking for a one-bedroom. “There are no brokers, but you’re dealing with the same kind of greed. People use all these buzzwords to mask what is happening, that they’re gouging people. Someone who owns a three-story brownstone and works for a nonprofit, or purports to be for the community but is turning around and allowing people to fight over 900 square feet for $4,000 a month.” Nelson acknowledged that the exorbitant rents were not the Listing Project’s doing, but she bristled at language on the site and in the listings that claimed to be inclusive when in reality, their prices made them anything but.

Another lister who lives upstate and has posted ads several times seeking living space — a category that has boomed since the pandemic — said she’d been frustrated by the fact that the site felt like “a mix between Airbnb and VRBO — hardly anything is long-term or affordable.”

“I recently saw something that was a $650 artist retreat. I clicked on it and it was for seven days,” she said. “Come on, who does that cater to? People who have the money to go into the woods and fuck off for a week? It seems like a lot of people with money bought these houses in places like Saugerties and are thinking of doing something like starting an artist retreat. Right now, all they’re doing is platforming really wealthy people who have places they’re charging too much for.”

Diamond told me that she was frustrated, too: “I can’t believe I’m in real estate. How am I part of that? I mean, we’re not part of it, but how much good can we do?” But she felt the only thing for her to do was to double down: going back to the community for guidance; writing blog posts so they could be a better resource to renters; updating the community-user agreements so that listers understood they are expected to actively take part in the site’s goals, vision, and values, with links to resources that explain how to do it. “The industry is disgusting, the history of what I’m operating in is so laden with inequality, but I’m trying to unravel it and do good in a really tough situation,” she says. “I’m not going to abandon the users.”

And there are people who still, even in this market, find spaces they love through the newsletter, spaces they probably wouldn’t have found anywhere else. I talked to a young teacher from Chicago who’d posted a seeking-space ad for a summer sublet. She’d originally been looking at Airbnb, “but all the places were really expensive and kind of strange,” she said. She paid $9 for an ad on the Listings Project, where a staffer answered her questions and gave her edits. She received just one message, from a woman offering her Noho two-bedroom for $1,400 a month, including one week when they were both in the apartment: “She said she knows she could charge more, but she wouldn’t get people she wants to share her space with. She uses the Listings Project because she likes the people she meets there.”

I also spoke with a 64-year-old writer who’d found her last two room shares through the Listings Project — a $1,175-a-month share in the Columbia Waterfront District where she’d ridden out the worst of the pandemic, and the apartment on Riverside Drive where she lives now. She pays $1,575 for a large bedroom and her own bathroom and has two roommates, an older man and a younger woman. “I could never have afforded to live in either of these two neighborhoods by myself,” she said. “And when my daughter left the house, I realized I had mixed feelings about living alone.”

My exchange with a landlord was somewhat less heartwarming. She told me that she’d received 57 inquiries after posting on the Listings Project a two-bedroom plus windowless bonus room in East Flatbush for $2,400, and “after getting such a strong response, we considered raising the price but realized that finding a strong tenant who we believe will take care of our property was more important than milking the market for everything it has.” She had, in the end, abided by the community-user agreements, but said she would very likely list it for more next time.

Diamond often describes the founding of Listings Project as something of an accident, but it’s clear that it’s become a calling, even if she did back into it by mistake. I’ve spoken to Diamond for many stories over the years and it’s clear that she loves real estate, which is not the same thing as loving the real-estate business. But when I talked to her for this story, she seemed, at times, a little weary of the career she’d made for herself. “My grandfather and dad were in real estate, but I don’t think they wanted to be,” she said one afternoon as we sat in Battery Park. “For me, real estate isn’t my first choice either. Really, it’s about community. I stop to talk to strangers all the time, and my dad did too. Community was his thing and it’s definitely mine.”

Then she seemed to catch herself. She pointed to a building in the distance, an undistinguished tan brick tower. You could tell it was some kind of affordable housing, she said, because of the type of brick and the close placement of the windows. But it had balconies, so it wasn’t public housing. Her father had taught her to read the city’s buildings like that and she still enjoyed doing it, just as she still believed in her work. “I’m ashamed of what’s going on,” she said. “But I know I’m helping and healing.”