I know firsthand about the mythical "affordable housing" bandied about by almost every cash-strapped New Yorker. Six years after applying with my partner, I won an apartment in the NYC Affordable Housing Lottery—a unicorn most folks actually know little about.
New York City and the NYC Housing Development Corporation (HDC) offer several types of affordable housing. The most common is the 80/20 Housing Program for low-income residents, which gives a tax-break to multi-family rental building developers if they set aside at least 20 percent of new units for low-income households. Among other programs, some buildings take part in a mixed-income (50/30/20) program or a Mix and Match housing program—both essentially divide units between low-income households and market-rate or middle-income tenants (usually up to 130 percent of the area median income, also known as AMI). For 2018, the AMI in New York City is $73,100 for a single person and $83,500 for a household of two. For each of these affordable units, you gain eligibility by meeting the HDC guidelines and winning the housing lottery.
My journey to affordable housing began at Housing Connect—the NYC Housing Development Corporation (HDC)'s portal to the housing lotteries. My partner and I filled out an online account with our basic household and financial information online and updated it over the years whenever our income or household composition changed. The site lists available properties and income requirements for you to look at. Both my partner and I were freelancers with minimal income and we qualified as a household making 50 percent of the AMI at the time. If we were eligible (and interested) for a building, we would simply hit "apply" on Housing Connect (If you're interested in getting into the brass tacks of the process, HDC provides an excellent guide to affordable housing that explains the process step-by-step). When you apply for a lottery, your application gets put in a pile with all the others (the NYC housing department estimates between 1,000 to 40,000 applications come in for each property), and the HDC choses "winners" at random. You're given a log number (the number assigned to each application that responds to the order in which the applications were received) to hold onto as well.
After applying for several housing lotteries, we never heard anything back. But nearly six years into trying, we were called in for an interview at a new luxury high-rise building on the Upper West Side months after applying for that building.
We were told to bring copies of our birth certificates, tax returns, bank statements, utility bills, pay stubs, a letter from our landlord because he never gave us rent receipts, and a bunch of other financial documents dating back three years to the interview. (This is a handy checklist with resources that lists the documentation you'll need to present at an affordable housing interview.)
On the day of the interview, we sat with an interviewer for over an hour while she went through our documents, added up numbers on her calculator, and asked the occasional question while we waited nervously. Finally, she told us we were eligible for a one-bedroom apartment.
But the process didn't stop there. All of our documents were checked for veracity and it took them three months to hear from them again, when they asked for additional documentation and told us we were "certified", meaning we were invited to view an apartment in the building. We went to an orientation with three other households at the new building and were shown–and offered–a one-bedroom unit for $810 a month. We were given 24 hours to decide whether we wanted the place. Our answer was obviously yes!
But a whirlwind process still followed. We were asked to sign a lease the next day and bring money orders for first month's rent and security deposit—yes a money order, the payment method that all anti-scam advice usually warns against (but in this case it was fine). This was true even though we were also paying $1,400 rent on our existing apartment and would be living there for another month.
This is where the affordable-ness of the affordable housing lottery came into question for us. There were many additional unforeseen expenses during the lease-up process. Aside from paying rent on two apartments for one month, we had to purchase three large area rugs as per the new building's rules, 80 percent of the floor space had to be covered. This ended up costing us close to a thousand dollars, and these were rugs that were on sale. There was no overhead lighting in our bedroom, so we had to spend another couple hundred dollars on lighting. Some folks have told me this is normal in Manhattan, but it was surprising for us after living in Brooklyn for 12-plus years where this was never an issue. (Luckily, my parents were able to give us money for these unforeseen expenses, but what happens to folks without additional resources who can't afford to comply?)
Once we moved in, things got easier. After you win the lottery, your apartment is like any other rent stabilized unit in New York City. We pay whatever increase the NYC Rent Guidelines Board has approved when we renew our lease, and we cannot lose the apartment just because we have since secured part-time day jobs and earn more than when we started renting. However, we do have to be recertified every year, which involves once again handing over all our financials (for the previous year) as well as a physical inspection of our apartment to satisfy various regulations of the different programs.
And to answer the most burning question we receive: Yes, we are allowed to use the amenities (lounge, gym, pool, rooftop deck) if we pay the same membership fee ($750 annually for a household of two or more, less for a single person) like every other tenant.
While it might take you years to win, you can start the affordable housing process now by clicking the links above. Good luck!
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