Putting Family First, in a Pandemic and at a Price – The New York Times

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Lisa Willis had long wanted to move to New York to be near her family, although she knew how expensive the city was. Covid made her rethink her priorities.
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In the early months of 2021, Lisa Willis’s daughter drove from Brooklyn to visit her in the Cleveland suburb where she lived. After a few days’ visit in the home Ms. Willis bought in 2015, her daughter, Libby, got back in the car to return to New York. This was the first time they’d seen each other since the start of the pandemic, and the goodbye was especially challenging.
Ms. Willis leaned into the car to hug her daughter one last time, then watched her pull out of the driveway. “She stuck her head out the window,” Ms. Willis remembered, “and said, ‘If you would just move to New York, we would never have to do this again.’”
For Ms. Willis, now 60, who had long entertained the idea of moving to the New York City area to be closer to her children, the statement was a turning point. At that point, she said, “You start to think, what do I have to do?”
When her children were small, Ms. Willis and her ex-husband often brought them to New York to visit. “It was my fault the kids fell in love with New York City,” she said with a chuckle. “We’d say, ‘Maybe one day you’ll live here!’ But a lot of parents say, ‘Maybe one day you’ll become president,’ and the kid never becomes president.”
Her son, Dieter, 36, moved to Queens in 2008 for a college internship, and now lives in Nyack with his wife and baby; Libby, 32, moved to Queens in 2014, and now lives in Brooklyn. For the past decade, they hoped their mother would join them. But when Ms. Willis bought her home in 2015, the prospect seemed less likely. “They had told me they wanted me to move here, and I just wasn’t ready for a variety of reasons,” she said. “One of the major reasons was that it’s very, very expensive.” The mortgage and property taxes on her house in Ohio came to $1,500 a month; rent in New York would require multiples of that sum.
Still, the pandemic had underscored how far Ms. Willis was from her children. The three of them had always been close, and she missed the Sunday dinners that were so important to their family that they all got matching silverware tattoos on their arms.
“I started to really rethink what was important to me,” Ms. Willis said of that time. She realized that spending time with her children was a top priority, and “I decided to spend money to have that lifestyle now, rather than saving money and being far away.”
In May of last year, Ms. Willis visited her children in New York, and they laid out a plan: “They said, ‘You need to move here, and we’re going to help you find an apartment and a job,’” she remembered. “And I said OK.” At the time, Ms. Willis was working in a living kidney donor program at the Cleveland Clinic; miraculously, a few weeks later, a friend recommended her for a job as a clinical analyst at CareDx, a transplant company based in California, that allows remote work.
$4,650 | Fort Greene, Brooklyn
Occupation: Senior clinical analyst at a medical transplant company
Budget Views: Her large windows look out onto neighboring walls, but “if I could see something else, my rent would be an extra $12,000 a year.”
Kitchen Must-Haves: “I had to have a gas stove so I can fire up my boiling water bath canner — canning is a big deal for me. I’ve been pitting cherries all week that we picked in Newburgh, for bourbon cherries and white cherry currant jam.”
The next step was selling the house, which proved shockingly easy. After Ms. Willis decided to sell, she told her neighbors as a courtesy; they decided to buy it, so the house never even went on the market.
In Brooklyn, Libby took on the difficult task of helping her mother find an apartment. Ms. Willis would find listings, schedule viewings, and put them on her daughter’s Google calendar; then, Libby would duck out of the restaurant she was running to check out the apartments. She soon found a promising option, but Ms. Willis, who had never applied to apartments in New York before, didn’t have all her paperwork ready, and missed out on it. Other times, Libby would call her from the sidewalk outside an apartment, explaining that the place wasn’t right.
The rental market was picking up from its Covid slump, and finding a place that fit Ms. Willis’s criteria — big enough to fit her dining room table, space for a dresser in the bedroom, a second bedroom for visiting family, laundry in the building — was becoming increasingly difficult. She had initially hoped to find a two-bedroom apartment for less than $3,000, but soon learned that was a long shot, given New York’s skyrocketing rent prices. By Labor Day, she said, “we had almost thrown in the towel. I started thinking that maybe this needed to happen next year.”
Then she stumbled upon a pair of listings in a former candy factory in Fort Greene. The apartments were still being renovated, but Libby saw the giant windows and the open-concept living space, and knew it was right. She explained her mother’s story to the agent showing the apartments, and they applied for one immediately.
The rent was well over that rosy $3,000 goal: at $4,650, it would require a significant contribution from Ms. Willis’s savings, a choice she didn’t take lightly. “The truth is, I am spending a lot of my savings to live here. But there comes a point where you have to decide what’s the right thing to do with your savings,” she said. “Do I just stack it up and let it sit there? Or use it to have the life that I’d like to have now?” The latter option won out; she and her two dogs moved in last October, once the renovation was complete.
The bright, open apartment has turned out to be perfect for Ms. Willis. The open-plan living room is big enough to fit her beloved couch that “fits the whole family,” as well as a teak dining table that can expand to seat 12. A small nook off the living room has made for the ideal home office. The previous tenants left behind a small butcher block table, which serves double duty as kitchen island and storage space; they also left behind a large cabinet system, a bonus for this dedicated home cook.
Ms. Willis has also come to love her neighborhood. When she moved in, “I would walk and walk because I didn’t want to go back inside — it was so beautiful,” she said.
One day last fall, a bicycle tour passed her while she was walking the dogs. “The leader said, ‘This is Fort Greene, one of the most prestigious and beautiful neighborhoods in Brooklyn,” Ms. Willis remembered, “And I just waved, like, ‘Yeah, I live here!’”

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