Fred A. Bernstein

For Shortbus Star Jay Brannan, a Small Apartment

A modest income qualified this actor for affordable, convenient housing.

Published in The New York Times, October 7, 2006

IF Jay Brannan is becoming increasingly popular as a singer and songwriter, it isn't because his lyrics are upbeat. Mr. Brannan sings about the ways that life is not a fairy tale. One number has the wry title "Ever After Happily."

But it is getting harder for Mr. Brannan, who is 24, to pull off the woe-is-me routine.

It's not just that he was cast, at 20, in the film "Shortbus." Even more galling, at 22, he found a studio apartment, in a prime section of Chelsea, for $600 a month.

True, both the film and the apartment came with strings attached.

In "Shortbus," directed by John Cameron Mitchell (the "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" auteur), Mr. Brannan braves a sex scene that, in his opinion, is far from flattering. "Sex can be funny, or awkward, or manipulative, or self-destructive," he said. "It can be lots of things besides erotic."

His apartment isn't perfect, either. It is only 200 square feet, which doesn't leave a lot of room even for Mr. Brannan - a self-described minimalist - to store things. "I like everything to be pretty invisible," he said.

To obtain the apartment, which is in a building operated by the nonprofit Common Ground Community, Mr. Brannan had to show that his annual income was between $18,500 and $29,800. In fact, he earns under $20,000, he said; he was paid about $6,000 for appearing in "Shortbus" and gets less than $100 for most singing gigs. To supplement his income, he works as a part-time proofreader for a translation company.

In addition to his rent - now up to $675 a month - Mr. Brannan pays $26 a month to have an air-conditioner and $8 for basic cable service. An incoming phone line adds another 50 cents a month. "The benefit of the low rent," he said, "is that I'm able to work fewer hours in a day job, and that means more time for my creative life."

From the tiny studio on West 24th Street, he can see directly into million-dollar condominiums in the Chelsea Mercantile building. But in an odd juxtaposition, Mr. Brannan's apartment is part of a new generation of public housing, a successor to the projects just a few blocks away that yielded at least one movie star (Whoopi Goldberg).

Mr. Brannan's apartment is in the Christopher, which for decades was a residential annex to the McBurney Y.M.C.A. on 23rd Street. The building, itself once home to Tennessee Williams, was purchased and renovated by Common Ground, with New York City and New York State picking up most of the $30 million tab.

The building is divided into two sections: 40 units are set aside for young adults who are aging out of foster care and might otherwise be on the street. Another 160 units are for low-income adults like Mr. Brannan, looking for a toehold in Manhattan.

"We're rooting for them," said Rosanne Haggerty, the founder and president of the Common Ground Community.

The lobby, with leather chairs by Le Corbusier, resembles the ground floor of a boutique hotel. Amenities include a fitness room, a computer room and a roof garden. Lobby security is tight. "Be sure to bring picture ID," Mr. Brannan told a reporter; there is no way to get past the guards without it.

Mr. Brannan's bedroom/kitchen/living room is tiny, with just enough space for a single bed and two chairs (which came with the apartment). Mr. Brannan's sole modification was to turn a kitchen shelf into a headboard, which allows him to work on his laptop computer, or strum his guitar, while reclining against a pillow.

Three of the room's four walls are covered with artworks by an ex-boyfriend, whom he would not identify. From the looks of things, the boyfriend's outlook was as dark as Mr. Brannan's.

But the bathroom is surprisingly bright and spacious, with the kind of fixtures seen in design magazines. That - and the fact that "it's clean and new, and I can live here by myself" - are Mr. Brannan's favorite things about the small apartment.

Mr. Brannan grew up in Texas, in a middle-class family (his father is a petroleum engineer), did one semester of college in Cincinnati, then made his way to California, hoping to act. Four years ago, when a relationship went sour, he left California for Manhattan.

In 2002, a friend showed him a casting notice for "Shortbus" in Backstage, and Mr. Brannan submitted an audition tape. In 2004, another friend told him about the Christopher, which had not yet opened.

He filed an application with low expectations. "The cool things don't ever work out for me," he said, unconvincingly. But he ended up as one of the building's original tenants.

Mr. Brannan is sometimes compared to Rufus Wainwright, another openly gay young singer-songwriter. Mr. Brannan sees himself as "more like Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell - I go for the sound of the angry, sad woman."

In "Half-Boyfriend," he sings:

I can't believe you're leaving

just when I let you in

and when you had me believing

I could feel again.

Luckily for Mr. Brannan, his tenor voice makes even the saddest lyrics easy on the ear.

Like Mr. Brannan, Common Ground is also gaining attention. It owns four New York buildings and has three more in the planning stages, Ms. Haggerty said. The buildings are considered "supportive housing" - permanent residences, with social services, for people who might otherwise be homeless.

Last summer, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg chose the lobby of the Christopher for a news conference introducing the New York Acquisition Fund, a $200 million war chest created by the city, along with banks and foundations, to speed the creation of some 30,000 supportive housing units in the next 10 years.

In developing the Christopher, Ms. Haggerty said, "we had to manage the requirements and deadlines of 17 funding sources, a process that took four years." The acquisition fund is expected to streamline that process.

Like Common Ground, Mr. Brannan could soon have an easier time making ends meet. If his income rises, his rent will increase in small increments, following rent-stabilization guidelines, Ms. Haggerty said. Even if he makes a lot of money, he would not be forced to move out.

"It would be a nice problem," she said, adding: "This is what society wants - to help people realize their dreams. We're seeing how housing can help."