Rebecca Strassberg was fortunate. She had a deep and important relationship that lasted four years — with her studio apartment in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.
“I loved it on sight. It was an open layout with two huge closets and a separate, small kitchen,” said Ms. Strassberg, 31, who is a branded content editor at the Hearst Corporation. She moved into the studio in 2018, paying $1,930 a month, and was thrilled because “it was bigger than anything I’d seen in my search.”
Ms. Strassberg, who grew up in Midwood, Brooklyn, said that a lot transpired during those four years. She lived by herself for the first time, got a dog, Brisket, and survived the pandemic. In April 2021, she met William Muschinske, a 30-year-old graphic designer from Oklahoma, on the dating app Bumble.
Their relationship grew quickly. At the time, Mr. Muschinske, who works at Bazaarvoice, a business-to-business software company, lived in a large, two-bedroom townhouse in Gowanus, Brooklyn, with a roommate and a cat named Fran. Most of his time was spent working and living at Ms. Strassberg’s. It didn’t take long before they outgrew the 500-square-foot space.
They started looking seriously in May of 2022 for something bigger. Ms. Strassberg asked the management company that rented her the studio if there were any larger apartments available. The couple were promptly shown a one-bedroom railroad apartment in a converted firehouse-turned-10-unit walk-up building only two blocks away. The apartment was narrow and had no interior doors, except for the bathroom. The rent was $2,750 per month.
They were the first to see the not-yet-listed space, but when they walked in, Ms. Strassberg was horrified.
“The bathroom looked as if it had never been cleaned. There was almost no place for storage. I felt I was in a fun house and things were falling in on me,” she said.
Mr. Muschinske agreed “it was bad,” he said. “It was one step above a hoarder situation.”
Still, the apartment had some appeal. It was bigger than the studio. Mr. Muschinske would have a small office area next to the eat-in kitchen, which came with a dishwasher — a selling point for Ms. Strassberg. And once they removed the broken blinds from a bedroom window, they found that it provided a tremendous amount of light.
Since the couple loved their neighborhood, and were promised the apartment would be cleaned, painted and that the bathtub would be re-grouted, they took the apartment.
At the time, the couple were feeling the effects of a city scrambling for housing as the world tried to rebound in the pandemic. “There was fear and anxiety we wouldn’t find anything. It felt like this was our one opportunity.”
Mr. Muschinske, whose lease was up that July, didn’t renew. Ms. Strassberg, who had until December, transferred hers over to the new apartment.
For the first four months, the couple coasted on decorating bliss. There were trips to IKEA, Home Depot and Lowes. Bookshelves and closets were built. Wood for an ambitious door project was purchased. Even Brisket and Fran were cohabiting nicely.
“I was excited to have separate rooms and the opportunity to make this a home,” Ms. Strassberg said.
“The beginning felt really good,” added Mr. Muschinske. “It was us officially starting our lives together under one roof. We discovered each other on a new level.”
$2,750 | Cobble Hill, Brooklyn
Rebecca Strassberg, 31; William Muschinske, 30
Occupations: She is a branded content editor at Hearst; he is a graphic designer at Bazaarvoice.
Design Challenge: “There a curved wall in the living room, which, we guess, is part of the pole from the original firehouse. It’s been a designing challenge for sure,” Ms. Strassberg said.
An Extended Workweek: “Doing a six-month intensive class extended my schedule to a 75-hour workweek. That wore on both of us. We weren’t enjoying the space. Any improvement felt like a task,” Mr. Muschinske said.
In September, with perhaps a stroke of bad timing, considering that both worked from home, Mr. Muschinske immersed himself in a six-month intensive design course. The demands of his job and the coursework kept him in front of the computer until 10 or 11 every night, and all day on Saturday. On Sunday, his only day off, doing chores and fixing the apartment were the last things on his list.
Soon, an unexpected renter’s remorse consumed the couple like quicksand.
The missing doors allowed sound to travel everywhere. They became overwhelmed from the lack of available storage space and didn’t know where to put their belongings. The narrowness of the apartment amplified the problems. If Mr. Muschinske’s onscreen camera was on, it caught Ms. Strassberg’s every move, like going into the kitchen or into the bathroom. AirPods became essential.
In a rash decision, Ms. Strassberg decided to sell her desk and buy a Peloton. That meant she was eating, working and napping from the couch, which she started to dread.
In January 2023, only six months in, they started looking for a new place, again.
Every day the couple scoured the internet, hoping for a two-bedroom with a yard.
“When we looked at other apartments, it was just as disappointing and difficult as the first time,” Ms. Strassberg said. “We saw one place that after the costs and fees, we would need $16,000 just to get the keys. Other apartments were gone by the time we emailed someone to see it.”
One saving grace during this period was the Congress Bar, their local watering hole, which “became an extension of our living room. We loved everyone there,” said Ms. Strassberg. “It gave me a chance to get out of the house and gave Billy time to himself. We still loved the neighborhood and the friends we had made. We didn’t want to leave that.”
The couple needed to emotionally recalibrate. It helped that in March, Mr. Muschinske finished his class.
“It’s mental, fixing the narrative in your head,” Ms. Strassberg said. “We realized it made less and less sense to trade up. That we were better off saving the money and appreciating the stability we had here.”
They returned to their decorating and enhancement projects. A new desk and chair were bought at IKEA. A free, almost new, computer monitor was acquired thanks to the Facebook group Buy Nothing. A proper work area was set up in the living room after space was made by moving Mr. Muschinske’s sizable record collection into another area, which made the apartment feel larger and gave Ms. Strassberg a sense of her own space. A new couch was purchased. Plans for a gallery wall were set in motion. Doors for each room were back on the docket.
“We started investing in the apartment financially and emotionally again. I felt instant happiness,” said Ms. Strassberg, noting that small changes make huge differences. “Now there’s a feeling of hope every time we bring something new in.”
Mr. Muschinske agreed, adding that the spark had returned.
“We wanted to put love into this because we want to enjoy the next 14 months,” he said. “Not moving allowed me to apply my energy to this current space. We’re also functioning as a team again. This experience has taught me how to deal with stress better, and how to be a better partner to Becca.”