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Want Cheap Rent? Here's How to Enter a Housing Lottery

By Amy Zimmer | November 27, 2013 7:33am
 The city receives about 50 applications for every unit of affordable housing, officials said.
Affordable Housing Lotteries
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MANHATTAN — With dreams of ditching her rodent-infested Murray Hill apartment of 11 years and living without a roommate, artist Jen Maler has been playing the city's lottery — the housing lottery, that is.

At any given time, there are open lotteries for apartments in a handful of developments that have units set aside for residents with certain income levels. Yet each new unit attracts 50 applications on average, according to the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).   

"Affordable housing is like the unicorn of New York City," said Maler, a photographer who has submitted her name to more than 20 buildings in the past five years.

The need for affordable housing is huge. Some 31 percent of New York City renters are considered “severely rent-burdened” because they spend at least half their income on rent, according to NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. Another 24 percent of renters are “moderately rent-burdened,” forking out between 30 and 50 percent of their income for rent.

Maler thought she had hit the jackpot in January, when she got an interview for a studio renting for $546 a month, available to those earning between $19,866 and $24,080 per year. The apartment was inside the Lyric, a luxury rental on the Upper West Side that was built in 2000 with 285 apartments, 20 percent of which were set aside for affordable housing.

"I was told by the first interviewer that my application was great and that apartments were available immediately," said Maler, who currently splits $2,400 per month in rent with a roommate. The first interviewer "even helped to fill out parts of my paperwork for me, to make sure everything would go through expeditiously," she said.

But Maler was dejected and confused when she received a letter in May stating that she didn't make enough money to be eligible for the unit, and was told she could appeal — which she did. She is now back on the waitlist, city officials confirmed.

Maler went for another interview earlier this month for a luxury rental in Hell's Kitchen, and this week received a letter telling her she's on her third waitlist, this time for a unit in TriBeCa.

Her sister is trying to get her to move to Austin, Texas, but Maler, who has photographed Ludacris, Beck and Albert Maysles, continues to place her bets.

"Living in New York is like flying first class," she said. "Once you've lived here you can't go back to coach."

Here's what you need to know about New York City's affordable housing rental lottery:

1. Sign up online to find out about housing lotteries.

The NYC Housing Connect website lists all open rental lotteries of projects run through HPD or the city’s Housing Development Corporation. Prospective tenants who create and save a profile, get an email whenever a new lottery is posted, and use their saved profile to apply to any project for which they're eligible.

2. Make sure your paperwork is in order.

Read NYC Housing Connect’s “What To Expect” and “After You Apply” so you know what documentation you’ll need to fill out the entire application accurately. If selected, you will have to verify everything during the interview process.

“Have your paperwork in order — the same as applying for any apartment,” said Moses Gates, of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, an organization that focuses on housing development policy.

If your income is just under or over the eligibility requirements, your application will not be considered, he added. If you land an apartment, you're in, even if your income goes up — or down.

3. Only submit one application per project.

If more than one member of a household applies to the same development, this will disqualify the household from that lottery, HPD officials said.

4. Different projects have different income restrictions.

There’s a lottery currently open for 404-414 W. 155th St. in Harlem, where some two-bedrooms are going for $460 a month for those earning between $17,829 and $20,600 a year. Others cost $1,379 a month for those earning $49,338 to $55,000.

Another project in Crown Heights, at 950 St. Johns Place, has two-bedrooms for $956 a month for families earning between $32,778 and $51,540.

The level of affordability depends on a number of things. The city consults with local council members and the community board to help determine what is needed and what’s appropriate, HPD officials explained.

5. Winners are selected at random.

The developers of each project are responsible for the random selection, interviewing and vetting of lottery applicants, who must be New York City residents.

“Every individual developer has its own standards,” the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development's Gates explained. “One developer's credit rating [that is required of applicants] might be different from another’s. The only thing is each developer has to keep it consistent for everyone.”

6. Be aware that blacklisting could be a problem.

A developer cannot automatically reject an applicant based on housing court records, according to HPD rules. If an applicant, for instance, can show that a case was brought about at no fault of his or her own, the applicant would remain eligible and have at least 10 days to contest a housing court record.

7. Advocates are calling on the new mayor to build more affordable housing.

“We give away an enormous amount of money in tax abatements and land acquisition. We also rezone a lot of areas for greater height and density,” Gates said. “All of these are public actions that create value. How much value goes to a private developer and how much goes to the neighborhood and citizen is not always a balance we've gotten right.”

“This is a huge opportunity to really rethink what the public gets for the public subsidy put into developments," he added.