CHINATOWN — Since the city first began accepting applications in March for affordable apartments at the sprawling Essex Crossing mega-development, hopeful applicants have been lining up outside the Asian Americans for Equality offices — some as early as 6 a.m. — to solicit language and form-filling assistance from the local nonprofit's small staff.
By Executive Director Chris Kui's estimate, roughly 6,000 applicants — flocking from across the boroughs, either non-English speaking or non-English proficient — have come through the tiny housing and community services headquarters at 111 Division St. for help navigating the city's affordable housing lottery.
Of those 6,000 people, about 2,000 are hoping to snag one of the 104 affordable units at Essex Crossing's "Site 5" at 145 Clinton St., which are going for as little as $519 a month, Kui said.
The other 4,000 have been senior citizens seeking one of the 99 low-cost senior apartments at 175 Delancey St., going for as little as $396 a month — the lottery for those apartments went live more recently, on April 17, and the lines have noticeably swelled since then, noted Kui.
Last Tuesday afternoon, despite being under heavy rain for much of the day, the line wrapped around the block, stretching from the office door on Division Street and down Allen Street, then snaking around East Broadway.
Though the office doesn't open until 9 a.m., some stake out a place in line as early as 6 a.m., rain or shine, said the office's managing director.
"They're in line from 6 o'clock," said Siukwan Chan. "They bring their chairs. They bring their umbrella — Tuesday it was [heavily] raining."
On a rainy afternoon, the line for AAFE assistance wrapped around the block. (Asian Americans for Equality)
A staff of 18 tackles the needs of the applicants who speak no to very little English — in the case of the seniors, many don't have computer access or email accounts, said Kui. The work has stretched the modest staff thin, said Kui, and had to be limited to three days a week so they would have time for other tasks.
"Right now it’s overwhelming," said Kui. "Our staff is really overwhelmed and working overtime."
Kui — whose organization is listed among the Housing Preservation Development's "Housing Ambassadors" because they partner with HPD to help locals apply for low-income housing — said he is proud to be among the groups bridging the gap with immigrant or senior communities. Still, he said he would like the developer to be more proactive about serving seniors and non-English speakers.
"It’s really the responsibility of the developer, and I feel like they have been neglecting…they have not put any resources out," said Kui.
Developers said that they're happy to help but that they were never informed that they needed help.
"We were informed by AAFE in early March that they were receiving roughly 30 walk-in applicants a day. We followed up with a check-in call that was not returned. We have not heard from them since. When informed by a reporter about the issue, we immediately contacted both HPD and AAFE to discuss ways we can assist."
An HPD representative noted the agency's online portal for affordable housing applications, along with guides on the process, had been translated into several languages including simplified Chinese. Though it is recommended that applicants apply online, HPD recently provided AAFE with paper applications, said the rep.
Additionally, Delancey Street Associates hosted information sessions on the application process along with HPD and the city's Housing Development Corporation, which were interpreted for non-English speaking attendees, said the HPD rep.
AAFE staffers work methodically to move the hopefuls through the application process as swiftly as possible. Several work outside to direct and corral the line, using amplifiers to address the crowd, while others brief those brought into the waiting area a handful at a time to ensure they have the necessary materials and to assess the reason for their visit.
Applicants are then ushered to a staffer who either walks them through the process of mailing out a request for an application or completing the applications itself — visitors mailing a request will return with the application in hand for further assistance filling it out. Stumped by a language barrier, the applicants are often seeking clarification on such basic information as income requirements and accepted household numbers, said Chan.
"They think three generations can live in a two-bedroom apartment," she said. "They're all confused."
Due to the volume of questions, AAFE has launched Saturday affordable housing workshops in addition to the regular weekday office hours — the first, held April 22, drew hundreds, said Chan.
The applicants come from near and far to stand in line, with some flocking from Queens and Brooklyn for the services AAFE provides, in hopes they can clinch larger living quarters at a more affordable price.
A Sunset Park resident who came to the Chinatown office for assistance in applying for an apartment in the development's Site 5 said she currently pays $1,110 a month to live in cramped quarters with her husband and 30-year-old daughter.
"It's too small and too much money," said Xian Lu Shui, speaking through a translator. "It's very, very hard to live there — paying the rent is so difficult."
Shui said she had to leave her job as a dishwasher when she suffered an injury. Her husband works as a home health care attendant.
"If we can participate too in this kind of subsidized housing, our family would be really happy to have a piece of that dream," she continued.
A senior who stood in line for an hour to request an application for Essex Crossing's senior housing said he is one of six family members from three generations crammed into an apartment in Woodside — he said he is hoping to move into a one-bedroom with his wife."The grandsons are getting bigger," said Li Fang Chen, 69, through a translator.
"It would be nice if the seniors could have their own place."