The basic narrative of RENT is a story that's been around as long as there have been broke, disaffected youth trying to live as artistes in high-priced cities. Based on La bohéme, an Italian opera that followed the lives of struggling bohemians in Paris in the 1800s, the quintessential New York musical captured city life well past its heyday as a Warholian haven for artists and eccentrics. The year was 1989: AIDS was a shameful epidemic, broken windows policing was gaining political momentum, the rent was getting too damn high, and an ensemble cast of characters was just trying to survive in NYC's Alphabet City, the eastern area of the East Village in Lower Manhattan.
Now the East Village isn't even a glimmer in the modern-day young bohemian's eye. A drug-addicted stripper, an HIV-positive "rock guitarist," an unsuccessful documentary filmmaker, a drag queen with AIDS, a lesbian performance artist, and an adjunct professor would barely be able to cobble together a month's RENT in Bushwick today.
With the return of the Tony-award winning musical to its home city for its 20th anniversary at Long Island City's Secret Theatre (RENT can't even afford Broadway anymore), just how much has rent in the former bohemian paradise changed?
In 1994, the New York Times ran a story called "New York Apartment Rents Moving Up" in which smarmy real-estate agents described the Village—where our favorite dancing bohemians sang, cried, and counted the hours of the year—as "booming." This, the article implies, is when the New York renter's market started to become, or was already, inhospitable to artists and 9-to-5 defectors. At this point in time, the Village was "as hot as it could possibly be."
A Furman Center report notes that the New York City real-estate market went through a period of rapid increase from 1980 to 1989, the year that RENT takes place. According to the report, housing prices increased by 152% and in some neighborhoods by 200%. During this time, the Lower East Side experienced one of the biggest price increases at 262.2%. From 1989 to 1996 housing prices dropped slightly, but quickly went up again.
Curbed did some snooping around in the archives of the Village Voice classified ads and found that prior to this housing boom, cheap rents could be found in the Village in the 1980s: One ad boasted a four-room unit on East 4th Street, smack dab in the middle of the Alphabet City, for $295. Today the average rent for a one-bedroom in the East Village is $2900.