A Couple Came for the Jazz and Stayed for a Better Apartment


Altin Sencalar’s timing could hardly have been worse.

“New York is the destination for jazz,” said Mr. Sencalar, a jazz trombonist. So a year and a half ago, he and his wife, Marina Sencalar, signed on — sight unseen — to an apartment in Washington Heights. Mr. Sencalar planned to perform and teach, as he had done in his native Texas.

“The day I moved here was the day I got called to go on tour with Michael Bublé,” he said. For months the couple’s $2,350 three-bedroom apartment sat mostly unused, an expensive storage unit. Ms. Sencalar remained in Texas with her parents.

Six months later, the gig ended, so the couple finally moved into the apartment in Washington Heights with their two dogs. “The big cash cow was unfortunately gone,” Mr. Sencalar said. “In classic New York fashion, the highs are high and the lows are low.”

Thanks to his jazz friends, however, Mr. Sencalar easily picked up work. “There is a big community here from my grad school, Michigan State, that looks out for one another,” he said.

But the couple, who had met as college students in Texas, were increasingly frustrated with their home. In the kitchen, only one outlet worked. Several evictions were proceeding in the building. They watched a neighbor upstairs get arrested.

“Here is the classic ‘first apartment in New York’ story,” Mr. Sencalar said. “We had a leak every single day from October to May.”

One leak was in the wall between the kitchen and the bathroom. Another came from the toilet upstairs. Mold grew.

“We were coming from Texas with newer apartments and newer everything,” Ms. Sencalar said. “I am used to having maintenance staff on the premises.” They complained to the landlord, but didn’t like the response. “They wanted to paint over the mold. I am a person with some allergies, and you cannot just paint over mold.”

It didn’t help that their neighborhood was congested and rowdy. Music played in the streets into the wee hours. Visiting friends were horrified. “I didn’t want friends coming over,” Mr. Sencalar said. “I was very embarrassed of the place.”

It was also tough to walk their two big dogs, JJ, a Great Dane-Labrador mix, and Navy, a pit bull, on the neighborhood’s crowded sidewalks, and although they were near Highbridge Park, “owners don’t always pick up after their dogs, and don’t walk their dogs with a leash,” Mr. Sencalar said.

That apartment constituted a humble beginning, Mr. Sencalar said. “I never felt at home in my apartment,” he said. “I was like, When am I going to get out of this? I’ve done the barren New York apartment thing. I want to live in a nicer place.”

$3,733 | Mott Haven, Bronx

Altin Sencalar, 29; Marina Sencalar, 29

Occupations: He is a jazz trombonist who teaches, performs and composes. She works in project management and customer support.

On elevator avoidance: The couple chose a low floor. With the dogs, they try to skip the elevator during rush hours. “My dogs want to say hello, and not everyone wants to say hello,” Mr. Sencalar said. And in an emergency, they can easily take the stairs.

On local food options: Their Bronx neighborhood doesn’t have as much variety in food delivery options as their Washington Heights neighborhood did. A food market is scheduled to open in their building’s retail space this month, but in the meantime they walk to the shopping area around a nearby subway station or to Bronx Terminal Market, 10 minutes away.

As the couple’s one-year lease in Washington Heights neared its end, the Sencalars discussed their next step.

“We have moved every year for the last eight years, so I had moving down to a science, but that does not mean I want to move anymore,” Ms. Sencalar said. “I told my husband, wherever we land, we land for a good minute.”

Searching online, she found Mott Haven in the South Bronx, where multiple large residential buildings have recently been built or are under construction near the rezoned Harlem River waterfront, a former industrial wasteland. And it had quick subway access to Manhattan.

Ms. Sencalar compared the rents in the new buildings with those in more established neighborhoods. “I noticed the rent was cheaper for better-quality buildings,” she said.

The couple especially liked the vibe at Estela, a two-building complex with 544 apartments. Last spring, they chose a two-year lease on a large one-bedroom — around 900 square feet — for $3,733, with an incentive of two and a half months free. There’s room for a music nook, a computer setup, a daybed for guests, two couches, a kitchen island and a king-size bed — and for playing with the dogs. (The pet fee is $25 a month for each pet.)

The convenience of a washer-dryer and a dishwasher, along with use of a gym in the building, made the higher rent worth it.

Qualifying for the rent was another matter. “We don’t have stable incomes in their eyes,” Ms. Sencalar said. “Most of our money was made by Altin, and as a musician, he has 1099 jobs,” referring to income tax forms for independent contractors. She does, too, working in project management and customer support. So the Sencalars used a company called TheGuarantors that guarantees leases for people who don’t meet a building’s strict financial requirements. They paid the company a one-time fee of $2,100, which included a security deposit.

Now, the Sencalars are happy to be home. Everything works. If something breaks, a handyman arrives promptly. They have four double electrical outlets in the kitchen.

The building is filled with amenities. Ms. Sencalar often works from the lounge, with its view of the Major Deegan Expressway snaking along the Harlem River with Yankee Stadium in the distance. She and her husband both enjoy the gym.

Once a week, the dogs get a bath and a blow-dry in the building’s dog spa. “Do you know how great it is for our dogs not to be wet on our couch?” Mr. Sencalar said.

There are far fewer pedestrians in their Mott Haven neighborhood. The Sencalars avoid walking the dogs in the more congested areas, and no longer have to fight their way through crowds.

The building is home to several dogs even bigger than theirs. “All the owners here that have big dogs understand we are trying to stay out of each other’s way,” Mr. Sencalar said. “Like, we will wait for one to approach another. It’s a respect thing.”

The Sencalars plan to stay put until they can buy a house.

“I’m a musician as well as a huge dog dad, so I have maybe two strikes against me, and for me to be this comfortable speaks volumes about my lifestyle in Estela,” Mr. Sencalar said. “Any time any of my friends come over, it’s like, ‘Hey, man, can I stay?’”

They can. “We love hosting people,” he said. “That was a big thing back in Texas for us. Now we are back to having people over. We have the space to hang and it’s cool.”



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