Astoria: the last cheap, hip hood?

New Yorkers love a bargain, but news of a good deal usually means one has to act fast to find a cheap place to live.

Astoria, the traditionally Greek neighborhood in Queens, proves a happy exception to the rule. After a half-decade as a somewhat second-tier destination for new arrivals and refugees from high Manhattan rents, the increasingly hip ‘hood still has plenty of low rents, bargain sale prices and plenty of space in the brick-faced apartment buildings flanking its tree-lined boulevards.

“Once my boyfriend and I decided to move in together, we realized that neither of our apartments were really big enough for two, and we started looking all over Manhattan and in Brooklyn,” said Astrid Conway, an advertising copywriter and recent transplant to Astoria. “What we could get with our budget was totally depressing, but when we visited Astoria we just couldn’t believe what we saw.”

What they saw is a lively, multi-ethnic neighborhood a 15-minute subway ride from Midtown, but with comparative price differences that are a happy shock to prospective arrivals. While tiny one-bedroom rentals in many parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan average upwards of $1,800 a month, a similar space in Astoria rents for around $1,100.

The cost of buying is also a relative bargain. According to Jorge Alberto Perez, a sales associate for the Corcoran Group, the Manhattan-based brokerage which has begun diverting some of its clients looking for more affordable housing to parts of Queens, buyers can double their space for the same price. He said one client who had logged months of fruitless searching for a two-bedroom condo in Manhattan found a three-bedroom home with a backyard and balcony in Astoria for $570,000.

“There’s so many great values out there, it’s like the wild, wild west of New York City real estate,” said Perez. “When I take my clients here, they just can’t believe it. The difference in what you get for the same amount of money is amazing.”

Indeed, in the last several years as Manhattan and Brooklyn prices have rocketed upwards, a survey of a half-dozen Astoria brokers indicates that over the same period the cost of renting or buying in Astoria has not dramatically changed.

Housing options are also expanding as a handful of new buildings go up and former warehouses and factories get converted into apartments. Local brokers said nearly all these new apartments are slated to be rental properties. New buildings, like the condos being developed by Bridgeside Developments on Astoria Boulevard, are primarily concentrated on commercial avenues. Several factories and warehouses are also being converted for residential use. Particularly active is the Pistilli Realty Group, which is converting several industrial buildings into condominiums.

“After Sept. 11 rents rose about 10 percent, but since then they have stabilized,” said Demetrius Partridge, an Astoria broker. “There’s a lot of interest here, and nothing stays on the market too long.”

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What is changing in Astoria is the demographic make-up of the community. For decades this enclave of blue-collar workers, Greek-Americans, and immigrants, particularly from South Asia and Brazil, was often perceived by professional New Yorkers as being situated on the wrong side of the tracks. At best, it was an interesting destination for an afternoon’s anthropological walkabout, but not a serious place to consider moving. Over the past five years or so, plenty of Astrid Conways have colonized swathes of the neighborhood, slowly injecting it with elements of the edgy panache of Park Slope or Williamsburg.

“I’d say that recently most of my clients have been young Americans,” said Partridge.

Beyond the inexpensive rents and its proximity to Midtown Manhattan, what is attracting them are Astoria’s numerous cultural offerings, like the Museum of the Moving Image and the Socrates Sculpture Park. Commercial thoroughfares offer diners a virtual United Nations of restaurant options. In the last two years residents say the range of commercial choices has expanded as shops replace corner delis, while garages close and mutate into hip bars with black lights, live-music nights and visiting DJs.

“It’s amazing because when we get up on weekends we have just as many restaurant choices as we did where we lived in Manhattan,” said Conway. “We don’t feel like we really have to leave our neighborhood to do something interesting.”

While Astoria’s real estate prices have largely remained stable since 2001, many brokers predict an escalation as interest in the neighborhood grows.

Just as gentrification is altering Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Long Island City, brokers said Astoria, with its abundance of Tudor apartment buildings and convenient subway access to Manhattan, is poised for a boom. If New York wins the 2012 Olympics, Astoria will be thrust into the spotlight, as large stretches of its waterfront become venues for rowing and swimming.

“The value of property will go up, as more and more Manhattan money comes into the neighborhood,” said Perez. “What’s happening in Astoria is still a bit of a secret, but that information will get shared.”

The Real Deal