I Made It as an Actor. I Couldn’t Make the Rent.
By 2010, I had made it as an actor in NYC. I was 30 years old. I’d debuted on Broadway, filmed two TV commercials back-to-back, checked off my requisite Law and Order appearance, and was cast in two new, upcoming Off-Broadway musicals, both written by award-winning geniuses. My fellow actors had careers of legend. The New York Times reviewed our work. The stories we were telling were urgent and heartbreakingly beautiful. And I couldn’t pay my rent.
As we have seemingly resigned ourselves to saying in the theater, “the higher the art, the lower the pay.” In my case, it couldn’t have been more accurate. For those two Off-Broadway musicals, I was paid $218 and $300 per week, respectively, before taxes. That worked out to be $872 and $1200 per month. In terms of my time, the rates were $5.42 and $7.50 per hour each. My rent was $1500 per month. In other words, nearly two months of pay went towards one month of rent.
By 2012, I found myself abandoning my 600-square-foot “converted two-bedroom” — a classic NYC euphemism for a wall thrown up in the middle of a living room in order to make another bedroom — for a move uptown with two roommates. I felt ashamed that I had “made it” as an actor yet couldn’t “make” my rent. This was despite working full time in a unionized position with top-tier artists, and it made me question the value of my work. I felt embarrassed for my industry and angry with my union, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA). With the cost of living rising so dramatically, how did we allow wages to remain so stagnant, only increasing about 2% annually over the last 30 years?
As I write this, actors and AEA are discussing, planning and working toward the goal of a campaign, called #fairwageonstage, to raise wages for Off-Broadway contracts. I stand with them. I hope we succeed in raising salary minimums to a living wage.
But even if #fairwageonstage delivers on all of its goals, a larger national issue still remains. There is a tremendous rental affordability crisis in America. In NYC, for example, one in three people spend more than 50% of their income on rent. According to a study on Zillow.com, 60% of renters with high-rent burdens nationwide cannot cover three months worth of expenses in the event of a financial emergency. When so much of your income goes towards rent and you have little or no savings, you are one bill away from eviction. Nationally, some 11.4 million renters spend more than 50% of their income on rent. We may be seven years past the bottom of the 2008-09 fiscal crisis, but for millions of families, seniors, veterans and artists — not to mention nine million children — it’s as if the Great Recession never ended. America remains in the throes of a crushing, high-rent epidemic.
Make Room USA is a campaign fighting to end the rental housing crisis in America. This campaign “gives voice to struggling renters and elevates rental housing on the agendas of our nation’s leaders.” To bring this crisis to the forefront of the national conversation, Make Room – along with more than 450 other housing organizations — is running a national campaign to send one million messages to members of Congress.
Make Room needs your help to get elected leaders to listen. That is why their digital advocacy platform is simple to use. Through it, you can directly contact your Congressional representatives and share your personal struggles with rent so that each of them can understand the pervasiveness of this problem.
As part of the campaign, Make Room USA is also hosting a national essay contest designed to encourage people to share their personal story of how their rent burden holds them back. For the person who shares the most compelling story, Make Room USA will pay for one year of their rent, up to $15,000.
America’s rental affordability crisis is about stability. Where we live affects our access and our resources, where our children go to school and where we vote. For many of us, it is the single largest expense we have and therefore “making rent” remains the largest challenge holding us back from doing our work and doing it well.
It is now 2016, and I managed to stick it out in NYC. I’m currently getting a master’s degree in arts administration, in part, because I plan to tackle some of the very same socioeconomic threats to artists in a city that is more and more dominated by the financial industry, and more and more out of touch with its creative economy.
But my story is one of tens of thousands. Artists are forced out of their homes all the time here due to the ever-rising costs of rent. I was able to secure a new lease partly because I managed to maintain some savings and partly because I had family to lean on. Additionally, I would be remiss not to acknowledge race as a factor. This crisis impacts certain communities — specifically the Black and Hispanic communities — far more frequently and more severely.
Share your story.
And so I invite you to please share your story as I have shared mine. Let’s come together in this fight. If you just married a six-figure hedge fund type who happens to love “the Broadway” as much as you do, or if you happen to live in a Bushwick co-op that your parents bought for you, there’s something you can do, too. State and local governments have considerable sway over matters of affordable housing. Here in NYC, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to build 80,000 new affordable housing units and preserve 120,000 more units over the next 10 years was approved by City Council earlier this year. Let’s thank him, encourage him, and tell him and our City Council members that more must be done. You can contact your City Council member here.
Read more about Make Room USA and reach out to your local and state officials through their digital advocacy platform. Share your story on the platform and find solidarity with the countless others struggling too. Together, we can make the rental affordability crisis a priority for America.
Stanley Bahorek played Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee on Broadway, appeared on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and as “College Student #4” on Law and Order. He has appeared in over 20 new plays and musicals, including Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville, for which he is nominated for a 2016 Helen Hayes Award. A graduate of The University of Michigan musical theatre department, he is currently pursuing a Masters in Arts Administration at Baruch College where he also serves as Programming Associate for the Performing Arts Center. @stanleybahorek
This post is sponsored by Make Room USA.