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Affordable housing in New York: How to apply for affordable apartments

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Everything you need to know about NYC’s affordable housing lottery

A tall skyscraper with many windows.
461 Dean Street, one of the affordable buildings within the Pacific Park megaproject.
Max Touhey

Believe it or not, it was only seven years ago that the city’s affordable housing application process went digital. The website, NYC Housing Connect, launched in 2012, and since then has made it easier—in theory—for New Yorkers to apply for affordable apartments in buildings across the five boroughs.

Of course, while applying for an affordable apartment itself is easy, actually getting an apartment is not. As New York’s rental prices skyrocket and the demand for cheap housing grows ever-higher, more and more people are applying for the few affordable apartments available in qualifying buildings. The first rental within the Domino Sugar redevelopment, for example, received 87,000 applications for just 104 apartments.

That may have you feeling some despair about your chances of actually snagging one of these coveted apartments—and hey, we’re not going to pretend like one will magically fall into your lap. But still, it’s worth a shot if you’re looking for an affordable place to live.

Here’s everything you need to know about applying, what to expect, and more.

Who handles New York City’s affordable housing?

Developers are given incentives by the city and state, such as tax breaks, to create affordable apartments through programs like “Affordable New York” (the replacement for the former 421-a incentive program). Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing initiative, meanwhile, requires developers to create permanent affordable housing in new developments where a rezoning would be required to build bigger.

Once the developer is getting ready to rent a building, they work with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development or the Housing Development Corporation to allocate the affordable units—often through affordable housing lotteries.

What counts as “affordable,” anyway?

This is where things get a little tricky. The monthly rent for an “affordable” apartment in New York City hinges on something called “area median income” (AMI), which the HPD explains as such:

The median income for all cities across the country is defined each year by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The 2019 AMI for the New York City region is $96,100 for a three-person family (100% AMI).

If that number seems high, that’s because it is: The median family income for NYC in 2019, according to HUD, is $75,500. Why is the AMI so high, then? As we previously reported, “the federal government doesn’t use data from only New York City when calculating AMI. Following a complex history of changing methodologies, this calculation now includes income data from three other counties outside of the city: Rockland, Putnam, and Westchester counties.”

When developers are adding affordable housing in their new buildings, they set aside a number of apartments that are priced for those making a certain percentage of the AMI. Low-income housing, for example, may be allocated for households making up to 60 percent of the AMI, while middle-income may be priced for those making up to 100 percent of the AMI, and so on.

This can lead to a pretty wide disparity between housing costs and what New Yorkers can actually afford, particularly in neighborhoods where the median income is vastly different than the AMI. (See: East New York, where the median income is close to $35,000.)

To complicate matters further, apartments are allotted to households making a certain percentage of the AMI, rather than individuals, and the eligibility requirements change based on the number of people per household. HPD and HDC determine the minimum and maximum amounts that a household can make to be eligible for certain apartments, and those figures are typically outlined on each application. HPD has created a handy chart that shows the minimum annual income for various households across income bands, which can prove helpful for the application process.

Oh, and this is all based on your pre-tax income, so things like tips and freelance work count. Like we said, it’s complicated—and the HPD’s income guide does a pretty good job of breaking it down.

Okay, so how do I apply?

This is the easiest part! Start by creating a profile on NYC Housing Connect: All you have to do is enter a few key details—your name, household income, employment status, and so forth. Your income is one of the most important parts of the application, since it determines your eligibility for apartments; the HPD has a handy guide to figuring out exactly how to calculate it. Once that’s completed, your information will be saved in the system, ready to be used any time you want to apply for housing.

Listings appear on NYC Housing Connect pretty regularly, so the best way to ensure that you don’t miss one is to check the website every week, or even every few days. (Or check out our map of all the open affordable housing lotteries in the city.) Applications are typically kept open for a couple of months.

HPD recently unveiled a search function for current housing opportunities that will tell you which lotteries you qualify for, and in what boroughs. You simply enter your household size and combined household income—a figure that includes salaries, freelance income, and other sources like child support or SSI benefits—and it’ll spit out the lotteries you’re eligible for.

HDC also maintains a list of city-subsidized rentals that are either open for applications, or that have waiting lists for apartments. While there’s some overlap with the Housing Connect listings, HDC breaks down the available units by the type of program each one falls under—ELLA, for example, is “Extremely-Low and Low-Income Affordability Program,” while LAMP is “Low-income Affordable Marketplace Program.” Yes, this is confusing, too—HDC breaks it down here.

Is there any way to improve my chances?

Residents of New York’s various community boards get preferential status for affordable apartments in their district, so looking for housing in your neighborhood could help. Applicants with hearing, mobility, or vision impairments are also given preference, as are those who work for the city.

In some cases, developers may set aside a number of units for other reasons—for example, Essex Crossing’s first affordable housing lottery allocated a number of apartments for former residents of the Seward Park Extension Urban Renewal Area.

What happens after I apply?

It’s basically a waiting game. According to HPD, it can take anywhere from two to ten months for applications to be processed and potential renters to be selected. If you’re one of the lucky few, you’ll be asked to come in for an interview—and you’ll need to bring a buttload of documentation, including a copy of your current lease, proof that you’ve paid your rent, birth certificates for everyone in your household, among other documents.

New guidelines prevent developers from using things like a bad credit score or student loan debts against applicants, and survivors of domestic abuse are further protected from that sort of scrutiny. But be prepared to bring documents that back up any sorts of so-called “adverse factors” that might come up.

The city now also allows applicants to provide 12 months of rent payment history instead of having the landlord run a credit check or provide their own. This means that applicants don’t have to provide a Social Security Number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number for every adult in the household, allowing immigrant New Yorkers to apply as well. New rules also increased the permitted number of occupants per unit, which broadened the range of unit sizes for which households can qualify.

If you/your household pass muster, the next step is … more waiting. Even if you’re eligible, an apartment isn’t guaranteed—but if you do luck into one, you’ll find out once the developer and the city have given the thumbs-up. Once you’ve signed a lease, you’re good to go!

What do the critics think?

Lots of things! Critics say that this method of determining what’s “affordable” doesn’t necessarily create housing that’s truly affordable. What’s within reach for someone in an affluent neighborhood like the Upper West Side, for example, may not be in reach for someone in Crown Heights. And yet AMI is the same across the city, and takes counties outside of the city—which, naturally, have higher median incomes—into account.

Additionally, studies have shown that the current affordable housing lottery overwhelmingly favors young, single tenants—because developers aren’t creating enough apartments that are fit for families, or those with children—as well as white tenants.

Oh, and then there’s the whole “poor door” controversy, which is the larger issue of developers separating the subsidized tenants from ones paying market-rate—some developers have built their affordable housing in separate buildings, or ask them to enter through separate entrances.

So long story short, the way affordable housing is allocated currently is definitely not without its problems, and it’s a bit of a slog that may or may not pay off. But if you’re armed with information (and all of the paperwork you need) going into the process of applying, it’s worth a shot.