Two-Bedroom Tenement Apartment


Location Upper East Side

Rent $990.50 (rent-stabilized)

Square feet 400

Occupants Jon-Michael Hernandez (actor; director; artistic director, Huckleberry Productions; admissions counselor, American Academy of Dramatic Arts); roommate

You have no use of your legs below the knees and you’ve lived in a fifth-floor walk-up for 10 years? I suppose it is a bit of a walk. When I first moved here, it took me about 10 minutes to get upstairs. I hated it. I thought, I’m making such a big mistake. Now I’ve got it down to three minutes. I have spina bifida, a congenital birth defect where you are born with a hole in your spine. They corrected it when I was two weeks old. I was completely normal until 13. Then I started falling down a lot. They put me in the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in San Francisco.

Shriners Hospital! That’s the one they used to pass around a can for in movie theaters. You have to be sponsored by a Shriner. They wear a fez, but not during the day. On the first Saturday of the month, all the Shriners bring ice cream to the kids. By the time I was 25, I was walking with forearm crutches. I’m from Hanford, California, 1930s tract home, southwest of Fresno. My father is an auto mechanic.

Couldn’t you have rented an apartment on a lower floor? I mean, you not only walk up and down 75 apartment steps every day, but then there are 16 at your day job and the 25 when you are rehearsing one of your plays every night at the Metropolitan Playhouse. Plus you have to take two buses to work, two from work, two to the Playhouse on the Lower East Side, and two home. That’s eight buses a day! My roommate and I—he’s a dresser on Broadway; we lead totally separate lives—looked at an apartment on the second floor here, but it was so dark. I looked at so many apartments—one great one had a spiral staircase. . . .

Spiral staircase! It wouldn’t have bothered me, but the apartment was out of our price range. Every two-bedroom was. There was a great huge one, but it was in a neighborhood where I would have been afraid to come home late at night. I mean, I can’t run. I came to New York in ’91 to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Coming from California, you hear all these horror stories about how dangerous New York is. I lived in a private residence, the Kolping House, 88th near Lexington. But it was like a dorm room. I wanted my own place.

Didn’t the broker for this apartment say anything when he saw your crutches? No, he just wanted the money. The New York housing situation is so bad.

Your living room is the size of a closet. The smallness gives me a lot of freedom. I only need one crutch inside. When I dream, I never have crutches, you know. I’m running and jumping.

I would have thought there would be architecturally perfect subsidized housing for people with disabilities, but when I started calling around, Joan Byron, a housing expert at Pratt, said, “Are you crazy? If the given vacancy rate for New York City is 1 percent, for people with disabilities, you’re talking 5 percent of 1 percent. Available housing stock just doesn’t work for them. Most housing units in the city are relatively old, built prior to accessibility laws.” Elevator buildings cost tons of money. You make too much for public housing. The wait list is eight years. It never occurred to me that you can’t really live in Brooklyn or Queens, since only two Manhattan subway stops are accessible to people with disabilities. By the way, why are there all these Breakfast at Tiffany’s posters in your room? My favorite film! It was made the year I was born. I actually live very close to where Holly Golightly lived in the movie. Some days I walk by that building. In springtime they put up an awning—it’s the same style, white-and-green stripes, as the movie. I’ve had breakfast at Tiffany’s, too. You remember she said, If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.