The Serial Subletter – The New York Times


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Susannah Vila is forever on the move, apartment-wise.

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Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Susannah Vila lives in a large studio on the parlor floor of a townhouse in the East Village, but who’s to say how long she’ll be there.

A serial subletter, Ms. Vila, 31, sticks with apartments in much the way Henry VIII stuck with wives. Yes, it’s true she did once manage to stay put for a full year — the current record — in a two-bedroom place near Union Square. But balance that against the apartment above a restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Ms. Vila departed after just one month — another personal record.

Since transferring from George Washington University to New York University 11 years ago, Ms. Vila, an entrepreneur, has lived in 15 apartments in New York — in neighborhoods including Greenpoint, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill in Brooklyn; and Union Square, the West Village, Hamilton Heights, Morningside Heights, Chelsea and Chinatown in Manhattan.

But Ms. Vila’s moves have not all been domestic. She lived for brief periods — and also sublet — in Mexico City, Peru and Cairo, where she was a founder of the Engine Room, an organization that consults on the use of technology for social change.

If her name is on a lease, after a few months she tries to arrange for someone to take it over so she can sublet elsewhere. When she locates a place to sublet, she finds a reason to abandon ship so she can sublet somewhere else. Her bank account has sometimes suffered.

Name: Susannah Vila

Age: 31 Occupation: Entrepreneur. Ms. Vila is a founder of Flip, a platform designed for people who want to get out of their leases and those in search of a legal short-term sublet. “We aren’t trying to make millennials nomadic,” Ms. Vila said. “They already are nomadic. We’re trying to make it easier for them to live flexibly and affordably in the city.” Flip ensures the lease is above board and carefully vets the subletters. Since last December, when Flip started, there have been 4,000 postings on the site and 400 transactions. “We take a cut on both sides,” Ms. Vila said. “It’s been a challenge in that most people think it’s illegal to sublet.” Hobbies: Serial subletting. Ms. Vila’s many experiences as a roving renter have been helpful, “but not helpful, too, because I assume all our users want to live the way I’ve lived,” she said. “But I have a team of colleagues and they say, ‘Susannah, not everybody is like you.’ ” How she finds her apartments: Through friends, and Craigslist.

If she were so inclined, she could blame the whole thing on dear old dad. She’s a daughter of Bob Vila, the home-improvement television host, “and in our family it was the norm to move a lot,” Ms. Vila said.

Her own particular moves have been motivated by circumstances, like a breakup; by a realization that a particular apartment is in an area that is too much of a party scene; by a simple desire for a fresh start; or sometimes by a chance to occupy what Ms. Vila views as the holy grail: a unique space.

In Williamsburg, for example, she sublet first in a former rocket factory, then a few years later in a former pillow factory. Three apartments ago she lived in a converted seminary in Clinton Hill, last year in the basement of an active synagogue in Chinatown.

Along the way there have been a few illegal sublets, “but nothing to keep me up at night,” she said.

“You have to try different places to learn what you want,” continued Ms. Vila, who has, with partners, turned her residential restlessness into a business, Flip, that helps people find sublets.

“You may not know how much you miss a place that had natural light until you move to a space with no light. You learn from missing things and then, ultimately, you learn what are the variables that you care most about.”

She’s never regretted bailing on an apartment, she said. After all, her peregrinations have made her a true citizen of the city.

“I understand what it’s like to live in many neighborhoods, not just visit them,” Ms. Vila said. “There is something about waking up and going to that coffee shop down the block.”

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Ms. Vila’s home at the moment is a studio downtown. “You have to try different places to learn what you want,” she says.

She has a storage unit in Clinton Hill, an account at Rabbit Movers and an understandable preference for traveling light. “The way I think about it, I’m always doing spring cleaning,” she said. “I only have the clothing I wear on a regular basis. I kind of pride myself on not having stuff.”

For example, she doesn’t own a carrot peeler or a teapot. “There was a while that I’d have people over for dinner and they would ask, ‘How is it that you don’t have the basic stuff that everybody has in their kitchen?’ ”

Of course, these people have asked Ms. Vila other questions: What gives with all the moving? When are you going to settle down? Have you considered that you may have commitment issues?

Yes, she’s considered it. Yes, she has problems in that area personally, academically (she did transfer, after all) and professionally.

“Not being able to commit to an apartment has, for me, been similar to not being able to commit to a person,” she said. In her career as an entrepreneur, “there are a lot of moments where I’ve felt: ‘I have to get out of this,’ or ‘This isn’t going to work. I have to find my exit strategy.’ That’s the analogue.”

Ms. Vila has a one-year lease on her current apartment in the East Village. She loves her garbage disposal, the built-in niche with bookcases around the bed and the large backyard.

“I’ve decided with this one that I’m going to stay here for the whole year,” she said. “I’m 31 now. I’ll leave only if I move in with my boyfriend.”

She’s acutely aware that family and friends are skeptical. “They’re saying, ‘You will move in with him just so you can move into another apartment,’ ” Ms. Vila said.

“I don’t know if money is being exchanged,” she added, “but they’re definitely taking bets.”

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