Pierre Lepage and Nelly Gonzalez-Lepage had always wanted to live in New York.
So when Nelly was applying for residency programs last fall, which would dictate where the Chicago-based couple moved come summer 2020, it felt natural to place a Big Apple hospital at the top of her list.
The word that the 34-year-old doctor matched with a medical center in The Bronx, though, came in mid-March, as the city was experiencing the first waves into what would be a months-long coronavirus flood.
They were not deterred. They join the small, optimistic group of people moving to the city even as others flee.
“From the get-go, regardless of the pandemic, we both wanted to experience New York,” Pierre, 33, who works in operations for an online hotel booking service, told The Post. “The fact that we were in the middle of the crisis just meant additional logistics we had to take care of. It didn’t color our excitement.”
The couple scrapped plans to fly east to look at apartments, relying instead on StreetEasy listings’ photos and floor plans to pick their home base.
They kept an eye out for units convenient to subway lines between Pierre’s office in Midtown (for ease when it reopens) and The Bronx (where Nelly pulls back-to-back, 12-plus hour shifts).
One caught their eye: a one-bedroom in a Harlem townhouse that had just been converted from a crumbling single-family home into eight modern apartments with historic details.
Enter Douglas Elliman agent Claudia Rodriguez, who showed them the newly restored apartment via FaceTime.
She had worked on the townhouse renovation for two years, and its apartments had finally hit the rental market on March 14. Just days later, in-person showings were banned and the real-estate industry ground to a halt.
She, too, was not deterred.
“I learned how to make a movie on iMovie,” said Rodriguez, who also lead detailed video-call walk-throughs of empty units with prospective renters and created virtual 3-D tours. “You have to take the time to zoom in on everything, even turning on the water.”
Pierre recalled Rodriguez showed them the townhouse apartment in such detail that they felt comfortable signing the lease electronically, sight-unseen.
Between March 13 and mid-June, when real-estate agents were not allowed to show apartments, Rodriguez leased 13 rentals, most of them in Harlem and six of them to residents relocating to Manhattan.
“I was hearing a lot of, ‘We’ve always wanted to come to New York. We never had an opportunity, and . . . you can get a deal right now,” she recalled.
Given the supply of rental apartments that have been vacated by tenants leaving Manhattan and the relative decrease in demand, prices are softening and landlords are compelled to offer concessions.
“Before COVID, a lot of landlords would never do a remote lease signing. A lot of landlords would do riders for sight-unseen apartments, so that even if it was different when you saw it, you were stuck,” said Rodriguez, adding that even notarized paperwork wouldn’t cut it. “Those landlords need to change.”
Having secured an apartment painlessly and safely during a stressful time, Pierre and Nelly have settled into the neighborhood.
“Respecting social-distancing and mask orders, we are still able to walk around the city, enjoy Central Park and order food from some of the best restaurants,” Pierre said. “It’s already pretty good, but we’re excited for more to reopen.”
He and Nelly try to avoid crowded spots because of her possible coronavirus exposure at the hospital, but they do order from Sottocasa, a pizzeria on Malcolm X Boulevard.
Their order leaves no question they’ve made the right choice to ditch Chicago for the one-time epicenter of a pandemic.
“I’m totally for New York pizza,” Pierre said. “I don’t like deep-dish.”