Many New Yorkers are turning to crowdsourcing as a way to pay their rent.
Pop “New York” and “rent” into the search box of GoFundMe and you get more than 232,000 results, ranging from Yvonne Fitzner’s plea, “Help a Cancer Survivor Pay Her Rent” to a creative writing instructor and intern seeking a third job and begging readers “Help me not be homeless … again.”
“I was reluctant to do this,” said Fitzner, 71 , a graphic designer who lives in a $1,000-a-month studio on the Upper East Side that she has inhabited since 1968. “But I was scared … I have no close family and I could wind up on the streets or in a shelter.” So far, she’s raised $650 of her $1,500 goal .
“In order for this to work, you really have to promote it on Facebook,” Fitzner said, and she has not. She raised money online five years ago while being treated for ovarian cancer and said she would feel embarrassed if certain friends saw her soliciting donations again.
Her rent is cheap by NYC standards, but she pays another $800 a month to store items from her deceased mother’s estate and personal belongings. “I’m stuck in a studio and can’t afford to move,” she said.
Fitzner is not alone in her struggle. For people earning between $20,000 and $40,000 a year, rent went from gobbling up 33% of their income in 2000 to devouring 41% in 2012, according to an April report by City Comptroller Scott Stringer.
New Yorkers making less than $40,000 a year “have seen their incomes stagnate, while the supply of rental apartments affordable to them is rapidly evaporating,” said the report, titled “The Growing Gap: New York City’s Housing Affordability Challenge.” NYC city lost 400,000 apartments renting for $1,000 or less between 2000 and 2012 and the elderly and disabled face particularly grim choices, said the report.
Newcomers also face a daunting market: The average rent for a market-rate apartment in the NYC metro area (exempting Staten Island) in the third quarter of 2014 was $3,282, and the vacancy rate was 2.7%, according to a Reis Inc. survey of buildings with more than 40 units.
What makes an “online rent party” successful? For starters, a powerful social network, a lack of shame and vigorous marketing. Collecting money online “is a volume game,” so the more social connections a person has, the more likely he is to be successful, said Kraig Kleeman, a persuasion expert and author of the upcoming book, “Anatomy of a Sale.”
A quick dip online reveals an ocean of need in NYC: Relatives of Manhattan grocery owners seek money to help them stay in place after a devastating burglary. A Baruch college senior laments the cost of rent and food “is bearing down on me,” and fears he may not graduate. A visual artist who hurt her back and fell three months behind on her rent had raised $485 toward her $4,800 goal to prevent eviction. And despite the cautionary tales of people faltering in our famously expensive metropolis, hundreds, if not thousands, of appeals come from far away pageant queens, models, musicians, missionaries, actors, broadcasters and writers seeking financial support to relocate to NYC.
Fundraising sites often allow you to see who has given. That influences contributors because “if you see a friend giving to a cause, you’re much more likely to give to that cause as well,” University of Chicago economics professor John List told “Freakanomics” in a broadcast last year about charitable giving. (Men, incidentally, are more likely to donate to beautiful women, List also noted.)
A plausible, well told, and powerfully packaged story is also key: Givers are motivated by diverse reasons, but for askers, “honesty and integrity are important: People want to see this is not a long-term thing — that people are taking accountability and have a plan,” Kleeman said. While the threat of eviction may be terrifying, “too much emotion is counterproductive,” Kleeman said.
Leslie Sternbergh Alexander, 54, and her husband, Adam Alexander, 69, offered premiums of vintage Lenny Bruce posters and pencil drawings and prints to generous contributors for their IndieGoGo “rent party” which aimed to raise $12,000. While “you’re not allowed to say you’re selling anything,” on the site, offering “thank yous” seemed a good way to clear out a packed apartment while getting some dough, Leslie explained.
The rent on the East Village apartment Adam has lived in since 1970 is unbelievably cheap — $610 a month — but “things got funky” after Leslie had colon cancer, the cat got sick and as a result of an unusual agreement with a prior landlord to pay an each year’s rent in cash “at the end of the year.”
The Alexanders collected $2,485 (and, eventually, $450 more) in their “Save the Hippies!” campaign before a relative came to their rescue.
Raising back rent on a public website “was a very humbling thing to do,” and phenomenally emotional, recounted Bonz Malone, 46, who raised $1,655 — $155 more than his $1,500 goal — this summer on GoFundMe to stay in his Westchester loft.
Malone posted an 18-year-old photo and a one-paragraph plea (“keep it real, keep it serious and keep it empathetic” he says by way of advice) explaining, “as a freelancer, it’s feast or famine.” The self-described “hip-hop anthropologist” had an edge with thousands of Twitter followers and Facebook friends, but the rapid, emphatic flood of responses proved the thesis of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Thirty- two people contributed in amounts from $5 to $250 almost immediately. Many sent messages describing how much “they appreciated my work over the decades,” and telling him how much they sympathized with his plight. Their generosity, virtual comfort and encouragement “blew my mind,” Malone said.
The experience, which bought him time to finish a book, revealed that “more people are one step away from the street than they would like to admit,” Malone said. More importantly, it showed him that society is not as cruelly indifferent as many of us fear. “There are a whole lot of screwed-up things in the world, but there are a lot of people out there that restored my confidence. This was about a lot more than the money for me,” said Malone.