Molly* loved her backyard at first. She and her husband had moved to the garden-level two-bedroom in Crown Heights in early 2021. It was pricier than their last place, but it seemed worth it: She had visions of a thriving garden and casual dinner parties impervious to new COVID variants or indoor-dining regulations. But things slowly soured. She began to resent the backyard — the constant maintenance, the rats and mosquitoes, a mulberry tree with fruit that stained everything it touched. The next two years would become something like a constant battle against Mother Nature. “I went from being this ambitious gardener to barely being able to keep my area of the yard clean,” Molly said. “I didn’t realize how much more work it was going to be, or how dirty the work was going to be.”
Between March and September 2020, searches for rentals with “outdoor space” on StreetEasy rose 249 percent. Luxury buildings touted private terraces — even those pathetic little ones — as the amenity of the pandemic; sales grew accordingly, increasing by 42 percent in the span of a year. “We’re going to look to incorporate outdoor space, if not in every unit, in almost every unit,” one developer told the New York Times of the balcony boom in new construction. Amber Freda, a gardener who runs a landscape-design business, told me that 2021 was her biggest year to date. “People still were not traveling that much and they weren’t going to restaurants,” Freda said of the time, “so they really needed their outdoor spaces.”
Backyards felt like freedom in the early months of social distancing. With movie theaters closed, you could host your own outdoor Fast & Furious screening. Shuttered bars didn’t matter so much if you could host friends for an alfresco drink. But backyards in the city aren’t always as relaxing as they seem, and some tenants found themselves in their own version of the upstate regret story, confounded by their new (modest) acreage and the local wildlife. One person I spoke to who paid extra for a Brooklyn two-bedroom with a backyard during COVID ended up unwittingly sharing it: “We would open the door and there would just be an army of rats staring at us,” she said. Their landlord tried poison and dry ice, but nothing worked. “We would have friends over for dinner outside, and a rat would just dart under the table.” Another backyard regretter told me that their former yard, which had been marketed as private, was actually accessible through a door that led to the basement of a restaurant in the building; once, the previous building owner suddenly appeared, saying he was there to dig up a “special onion.”
Another renter I spoke to said they paid an additional $600 a month for a Brooklyn brownstone with a concrete backyard, which was fine at first. Come fall, the leaves clogged a drainage pipe, and the yard became a “mosquito-filled swamp.” When their lease renewal came up, their landlord tried to take away their backyard access without reducing the rent. “Even though I hate going out in the yard, this made me mad,” the tenant said. They managed to negotiate a reduction, which they now felt was “more valuable” to them than outdoor space. (This kind of remorse is not exactly universal. When asked if she ever felt burdened by her pandemic backyard, one tenant simply replied, “No.”)
Outdoor spaces require a certain amount of time and toil, Freda said, which can catch some people by surprise. “A lot of spaces are really raw,” she said of the yards, terraces, and rooftops she sees among her clients, who are mostly homeowners. Without any kind of irrigation system in place, watering can become a Sisyphean chore. Freda recalled a client in Soho who had bought an apartment with a beautifully staged rooftop garden that lacked a water hookup. Soon enough, the plants began drying up and the artificial greenery left behind by the previous owner faded and fell over. “It’s a bigger project than he realized when he bought the place,” Freda said. Hot summer days, when people most want to get out of the city, are also when gardens require the most upkeep, which, Freda said, might mean “no more trips to Fire Island on the weekend.”
Molly in Crown Heights never ended up starting that garden — she had her hands full with a newborn — but her neighbors’ kids did end up planting tomatoes. (They were later eaten by rats.) Tiki torches have done little to deter the mosquitoes. She’s stayed put, but says she hardly uses the yard anymore outside of a few dinner parties during ideal season — the shoulder months of spring and fall when there are fewer bugs and berries aren’t falling on their heads. But the stress of having a backyard was too much for some. The tenant dealing with the squadron of rats eventually gave up: “We just completely ceded the backyard to them.” When they started coming into the house, she fled. Her new place has no backyard, and she’s happy to keep it that way. “Never again,” she said.