A stranger’s gift to an ICU nurse: a free New York City apartment

“The opportunity kind of fell into my lap, and it was a no-brainer."

Leona Hernandez
Leona Hernandez, a nurse from St. Paul, Minn. working in New York during the coronavirus pandemic, at an apartment that was donated to her while the owner has left the city. Brittainy Newman/The New York Times)

Around noon on Easter Sunday, Leona Hernandez, a registered nurse, pulled up in a van to a stranger’s home on the South Side of Minneapolis.

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Her children, ages 2, 4 and 6, were with her. One asked, “Mom, is this New York?”

It was not. But it was the temporary home of a New Yorker, who gave Hernandez, a resident of nearby St. Paul, Minnesota, the keys to her Manhattan apartment, along with some instructions.

Two days later, Hernandez left Minnesota, apartment keys in hand, to work with coronavirus patients in the intensive care unit of a major New York City hospital.


Hannah Cairns, the New Yorker, said she was thrilled to donate her apartment to an ICU nurse. A few weeks before the key handoff, she had arrived in Minneapolis to crash on her father’s sofa for the duration of the outbreak. A work colleague then told her about Hernandez.

“The opportunity kind of fell into my lap, and it was a no-brainer,” said Cairns, 28, who works in sales and lives in the East Village.

“She tried to offer me funds,” Cairns said. “I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ This was an angel of a human.”

Across the city, New Yorkers who have fled are donating their apartments to out-of-town medical workers or to locals with health conditions that can make them more vulnerable to the virus. Several people who have left said they felt guilty about not being in the city to clap for health care workers or to order takeout in support of their favorite restaurants. Sharing their empty homes provides a substantial way to pitch in.


For the recipients, the apartments provide a home away from home, a place to help them feel more comfortable.

“This might sound silly, but it lifts my spirits just to know I am here, because it means someone is willing to help a complete stranger,” Hernandez, 33, said. “It helps me feel a little less alone.”

She is slowly adjusting to the East Village. The diminutive, two-room walk-up is much smaller than her free-standing house, which has a yard. There is hardly any counter space, and there is “a lovely coffee table, but no table table,” Hernandez said.

She is also getting used to life in New York during a pandemic. “I went on a long walk to Times Square, and I bought toilet paper,” Hernandez said. “I was like, ‘Never have I walked 2 miles holding toilet paper,’ but I saw four other people doing the same thing, so I realized that’s just what people do here. I feel like a New Yorker.”


Mei Ann Teo, 41, the producing artistic director for Musical Theatre Factory, usually lives in a 400-square-foot apartment in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village that she describes as “cozy.” In late March, she took a last-minute flight to Singapore, where her parents were hospitalized with the coronavirus. Before she left, she made sure that her empty apartment would go to someone in need of a private space: Rainey Rowan.

Rowan, 32, a friend of a friend, was undergoing chemotherapy for Stage 2 breast cancer at the time. An operations manager at Town Stages, an arts space in Tribeca, she had been living with two roommates in Astoria, Queens, and had become anxious about her situation.


“There’s a rotating cast of caretakers, boxes of medical supplies, emotional turbulence to navigate, and I’m not as capable of handling my share of apartment chores,” Rowan said. “When I first heard about Mei Ann’s apartment, my jaw hit the floor.”

The timing proved fortunate: Rowan is scheduled to have a mastectomy on Tuesday, and her mother is coming to town to help her recover. “It’s like I am being given this incredible gift right at the moment when I need it the most,” Rowan said.

Other New Yorkers want to donate their apartments, but say they are unable to find a taker.


Jordi Lippe-McGraw, a travel journalist who fled the city, posted on multiple Facebook groups that her one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan was available. “You feel guilty,” Lippe-McGraw, 33, said. “You feel helpless. I just wanted to do something.”

She quickly received multiple responses, but none of them panned out. There were scheduling issues, or the virus sickened potential guests.

New Yorkers who manage to donate their apartments to medical workers or those in need risk pushback from landlords or neighbors. The workers are essentially guests who are not subletting, but they are potentially exposing other residents to the virus.

Cairns told her superintendent about Hernandez’s stay, but not her landlord.


“My main concern is that I could risk eviction for hosting an ICU nurse or more generally having a visitor for a long stay,” she said. Because the virus is believed to remain on surfaces for only a few days, she said that she was not worried about getting infected in the apartment upon her return.

Teo was concerned about infecting her guest, Rowan. “I was more worried that I might be asymptomatic and leave the virus for someone with compromised immunity,” she said. “So I cleaned like I’ve never cleaned before.”

Also tricky is the fact that New Yorkers who left the city might want to return soon.


Hernandez told Cairns that she would move out immediately if she wanted to come back.

“Stay as long as you need,” Cairns told Hernandez. “If I come back early, I will stay with friends.”

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