NEW YORK — Steven Cintron kicks back on a small sofa a mere couple feet from his kitchen table. The breather from his construction job is welcome, even if cramped like everything else in New York City.
The couch doubles as a bed for his pit bull, Bruno. Cintron's own queen-size mattress is shoved in the back with the TV, a hunched walk past the mini-fridge, three-burner stove and closet-size bathroom.
Cintron's roughly 200-square-foot pad isn't just any tiny apartment in the Big Apple. It's an RV — meant more for roaming American highways than wedging into parallel parking spots.
As the most expensive city in the country gets even pricier, Cintron and other New Yorkers are taking drastic steps to survive the most brutal real estate market in the United States. They are ditching sky-high rents and buying secondhand recreational vehicles.
"I've got everything," said Cintron, a husky 34-year-old with a close-cropped beard and gold chain, as his fan and portable air conditioner whir. "I'm comfortable here."
Cintron was looking for a new place to live last spring after splitting up with his girlfriend. Unable to find an affordable apartment that would also allow his dog, he found inspiration in a friend who owns an RV. So he bought a 1996 Gulf Stream Ultra posted on Craigslist for $5,000.
He wound up parking near Brooklyn's tony Park Slope neighborhood, where he grew up but now can't afford to rent. A new Whole Foods is sprouting a few blocks from an artisanal pickle store and organic juice bar.
By turning to mobile apartments, RV dwellers are something of real estate pioneers in New York. RVs give New Yorkers a way into hip or exclusive neighborhoods they otherwise might not be able to afford. They don't have to worry about nagging landlords, rent hikes or upstairs neighbors tap-dancing at midnight.
But there are obvious trade-offs. Getting electricity takes some effort. Heating during the winter can get costly. Mail may need to be delivered to relatives' places or post office boxes. There's also the issue of how to hook up sewage lines.
And RVs may not offer much social cachet.
"The ladies aren't really kicking down the door," said Rick Hall, who gave up on trying to find an apartment before he moved to New York to study at St. John's University. Hall bought the RV from a friend when he was still in Ohio and parked his home near the school's campus in Queens.
New Yorkers have long struggled to find affordable shelter in a city bursting at the seams with more than 8 million people. They have crammed extra roommates into bifurcated living rooms, converted closets into bedrooms and moved into house boats. Greg Kloehn, an artist based in Oakland, won worldwide media attention when he transformed a Dumpster into a miniature bungalow for when he visits the East Coast.
As Wall Street profits have roared back, economists say, the city's deep-pocketed financial class and foreign investors have driven up real estate prices and rents even as incomes have stagnated in a sluggish economy. Last year, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev reportedly paid a record $88 million for an apartment along Central Park in Manhattan.
Renters are paying record amounts too. The average asking rent in New York was $3,105 in the third quarter, up 6% from a previous high in the third quarter of 2008, according to real estate research firm Reis Inc.
New Yorkers on average pay more than double what Los Angeles renters pay ($1,480), and nearly 50% higher than San Francisco renters ($2,113), according to Reis.
The Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn, where Cintron grew up, has gentrified quickly in recent years.
The area has become a trendy destination for well-to-do professionals squeezed out of Manhattan by soaring rents. Its leafy streets lined with manicured brownstones are known for being congested with baby strollers.
It is home to political bigwigs such as Bill de Blasio, New York's mayor-elect, and Charles Schumer, the powerful U.S. senator, who lives along Brooklyn's treasured Prospect Park. Celebrity denizens reportedly include actors Maggie Gyllenhaal, Patrick Stewart and Steve Buscemi.
Living there costs a premium. For a mere studio apartment, landlords ask as much as $2,000 a month, according to listings on the website StreetEasy.
B. Bryan, 33, may be priced out of Park Slope, but that didn't stop him from snagging a parking spot just steps from the park.
"Rents are astronomical, so you don't even have to worry about your rents going up," Bryan said.
The idea of saving on rent appealed to Bryan, a former New York City employee who said he is out of work on disability. He dropped about $15,000 on a 1994 Thor Industries Pinnacle, including improvements.
Bryan tricked out his portable digs with solar panels, his electricity source. He fills up its 100-gallon tank using a fire hydrant, for dishwashing and use in the restroom.