Are Historical Housings More Expensive to Rent in New York?

New York has the world’s most expensive real estate market and many of them are known for their significant historical value.

This townhouse at 12 East 69th street is one of the most expensive homes that was publicly for sale. It was built in 1884 and redesigned to its current neo-classical style in the early 20th century by architect William Bosworth, who has also designed the Rockefeller Estate and restored Palace of Versailles. This 20,000-square-foot mansion was listed for $114 million in 2013.

Retrieve from

Owning a brownstone is a dream for many New Yorkers, and it is no doubt very pricey to purchase. The seven figure price has turned many brownstone lovers, including me, to an alternative — renting.

As a long time admirer of historical architecture, I am curious to see if the price for rentals in historical buildings are higher than the ones in other buildings.

In order to find my answer, I first identified where most historical buildings are located. I discovered a dataset of all historical buildings on NYC Open Data, which includes buildings of all uses. Since I was only looking at buildings for living, I used the select function in QGIS to filter out only residential buildings (including mixed use). The dataset describes the properties by polygons instead of latitude and longitude. So, I counted the filtered polygons in each neighborhood tabulation areas using join and summary function, which led me to the map below.

Unsurprisingly, almost all areas in Manhattan have some historical buildings. The majority of the historical housings are located on the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, and west side of lower Manhattan. Brooklyn also has a significant number of historical houses and they are mainly centered in the west side of the borough. Neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Park Slope, Crown Heights have over 1000 historical residential buildings.

After knowing where history is more pervasive, I decided to focus on Manhattan exclusively to see if there’s a correlation between the number of historical buildings and the price of the rental homes in all the neighborhoods.

The only rental housing price related datasets I could find is the Comparable Rental Income data from the NYC Department of Finance (DOF). DOF uses income information from rental properties similar in physical features and location to the condominiums or cooperatives, and determines its value in the same way it values rental apartment buildings.

DOF separated their data by Borough and housing type. Since majority of the historic houses are in co-op style, I first worked with the co-op data. Unfortunately, most the properties listed there don’t have BBL or altitude and longitude. Thus, I geocoded the address and it brought up some issues for my analysis which I will discuss later.

Afterwards, I counted the number of buildings in each areas, summarized them by its mean value, and categorized them based on their average market value per square feet. I also filtered out the number of residential historical buildings for Manhattan to compare with the average market value.

After comparing the two maps, the only two areas that correspond with each others are the Upper East Side west of Park Ave, and the north pat of Tribeca, where both the market value and the density of historical buildings are high. The rental price in midtown is pretty consistent across different neighborhoods. Areas like West and South Harlem, where many brownstones are located, are not priced higher than East Harlem, which has less historical buildings. Since I calculated the market value per sqft in each areas by its average, I think it’s very possible that some high value historical properties evened out by the other low valued buildings in the same area.

In order to find more information about the housing price in historical neighborhoods, I dived deeper into the market value of each buildings in these areas. To do so, I used historical district data published by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and illustrated the historical blocks using the yellow polygons shown in the map. This time, I also incorporated the market value data for condominium rentals, in addition to co-ops. I merged the condo and co-op data together and labeled the properties by its market value. After looking closely to the points, I realized that the geocoded properties are shown on the streets. I was told that’s a common problem for geocoding. After evaluating several alternatives to improve accuracy, I decided to create a buffer for the historical districts. The buffer was set by 60 feet, which is the average street width in New York.

The results explained the rental price distribution around central park. As shown above, the Upper East Side clearly has more expensive rentals than other areas, and the most expensive housings are mainly located in the historical districts on the Upper East Side. This makes sense given that the housing value tend to be higher closer to the Park. The properties below 85th street on the east side are more expensive than the ones above.

The historical districts on the Upper West Side, on the contrary, has a relatively low priced rentals, which gathered along the Riverside Drive. The historical blocks near central park don’t have as many rental properties as the east side. My guess is that many of properties there are not residential.

In conclusion, the rental price in the historical districts are not necessarily higher than other districts. Compare to sale price, rental price has more factors affecting its market value. For instance, some of the buildings might be rent control , and some of them might be subsidized housing etc. The market value of these rentals may not reflect its popularity.

Property owners come and go, but the their stories stay with the buildings. For me, that’s what makes these historical homes interesting and romantic. After knowing where these properties are located, I am now more ready to move into a historical house to create my own memories.

An aspiring Urban Planner based in NYC