25 Million Applications: The Scramble for N.Y.C. Affordable Housing

For more than five years, William Sencion did the same task over and over. He signed onto the New York City’s housing lottery site and applied for one of the city’s highly coveted, below-market apartments. Each time, he got the same response: silence.

That was until late last year, when he was told that he might qualify for a one-bedroom unit in the Bronx. But first he had to prove his eligibility by printing a month’s worth of financial, banking and tax documents, along with a letter from his employer, and providing them in person to a marketing agent for the apartment.

He finally moved into the Bronx apartment last month, nearly six years after he first filed an application with the city’s affordable-housing system. His new one-bedroom home costs $1,554 a month, about $700 less than a comparable market-rate unit, he said.

For many New Yorkers, the most desirable jackpot is not the New York Lotto, but to be selected in the city’s extraordinarily competitive affordable-housing lottery. Tens of thousands of people, and sometimes many more, vie for the handful of units available at a time. Since 2013, there have been more than 25 million applications submitted for roughly 40,000 units.

As New York City enters a third month of economic turmoil and unprecedented job losses because of the coronavirus outbreak, the city on Monday is rolling out an overhauled and much more modern method to apply for affordable housing.

The online system, known as NYC Housing Connect, had been derided as antiquated and rife with technical problems that posed significant impediments to getting affordable housing even as the city has grown more expensive.

“There’s a lot of waiting and waiting and not knowing if you are going to get it,” Mr. Sencion, 35, said.

The new system is designed to streamline the application process, fix the frequent glitches and speed up the time it takes to move people into below-market apartments.

“This pandemic not only caused a health crisis — it has caused an economic one as well. As stress is mounting on families across the city, we are fighting to ensure all New Yorkers are supported,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “The new and improved NYC Housing Connect will make applying for affordable housing easier than ever at a time that we know families need all the help they can get.”

Applicants must wait years, often through personal financial hardship, for a shot at an affordable apartment, which can be hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars less than a market-rate unit. The process is tiresome and complex.

New York City’s first major overhaul of the housing lottery online will bring the system into the digital age, including the ability to apply on a smartphone. The current system, which went online in 2013, had become outdated and still required applicants to conduct some work in person, such as providing reams of financial statements. On the new site, those documents can be uploaded online.

The housing lottery is the central clearinghouse for the vast majority of affordable-housing units in the city, including developments financed and subsidized by New York. The redesigned site will go online on Monday and the first units will appear on July 1.

There will be roughly 2,500 apartments offered on the site in the coming months, which will be available mostly for those with household incomes below or slightly above the median income. (The median income in New York City for a family of four is $113,700.)

Mr. de Blasio has pledged to create and preserve at least 300,000 affordable homes by 2026, 200,000 of which the administration says it plans to achieve ahead of schedule in 2022.

About 148,000 affordable homes have been created or preserved since 2014. Over the past year, more than 8,700 units have been advertised in the online lottery system, the most in any fiscal year, the city said.

Still, housing advocates say many more low-cost homes are needed as the cost of living in New York has become increasingly prohibitive for working and middle-class residents.

And the mayor’s plan was created long before the current economic turmoil, which has cost more than a million residents of New York City to lose their jobs, creating a looming housing crisis for those who have been unable to pay rent and could face eviction in the coming months.

An eviction moratorium imposed by the state for those affected by the pandemic and economic shutdown expires in August.

While the lottery website’s user interface will have an entirely new design, the most significant changes are under the hood. After applicants create profiles stating their household size and household income, which together determine a person’s eligibility, they will be shown apartments that they are most likely to qualify for.

That is a significant change from the old system, in which applicants typically applied to every building on the lottery site without knowing if they were even eligible. That process led some units to receive more than 100,000 applicants, most of whom would never find out that they were ineligible from the beginning.

There were other major problems too, like the site randomly crashing and freezing. City officials said the entire lottery system has been upgraded to improve its usability and stability.

“One of the biggest frustrations was people not hearing if you were accepted and not hearing if you were rejected,” said Luis Daniel Caridad, an assistant director at GOLES, an organization on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that helps people apply for affordable housing. “We’ve been told that it has been fundamentally changed, and we are hopeful.”

For years, the housing lottery only included newly constructed units. When someone moved into one and then left, the vacated apartments did not return to the lottery. Buildings kept their own waiting lists, leading to allegations to those with political connections or who paid bribes could cut in line.

Some of those vacant units will now be entered in the lottery, allowing everyone to be made aware when they become available. Councilman Ben Kallos,
who wrote the legislation that requires past rentals to return to the lottery, said the change would eventually bring thousands of units back into the lottery every month.

“Before this, you had waiting lists and you had folks who might be politically connected with an official who knew buildings that had affordable housing,” said Mr. Kallos, a Democrat who represents the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “This means that all the vacant units in the system will be re-rented quickly.”

Mr. Caridad said that the revamped lottery would still not address the most glaring shortfall in the city: the lack of affordable housing.

“Having the actual affordable housing that hundreds of thousand of people need is really where the city needs to move toward,” he said. “The broader problem has not been fixed.”

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