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Affordable housing is one of the hottest topics in the real estate market these days. It all started with Mayor de Blasio’s plan to preserve or build 300,000 affordable units by 2026, which has resulted in a slew of new lotteries, a recent update to the lottery policy to ease the process for immigrants and low-income New Yorkers, and a record number of affordable homes for seniors and homeless New Yorkers. But the topic is not without its issues, with many still wondering if the city is doing enough for affordability and if some of these units are really affordable. Whatever your opinion, there’s no doubt that affordable housing in NYC can get quite confusing. Ahead, 6sqft breaks down the different types of programs, how you can qualify and apply, and what happens if and when you get in.
What are the different types of affordable housing?
In general, New York City defines affordable housing as that which costs roughly one-third or less of a household’s income and is regulated in such a way that the rent cannot increase drastically over time. There are a few different types of affordable housing, though.
NYCHA is the largest public housing authority in North America. NYCHA developments are built with federal, state, or city funds and are exempt from certain local laws. On average, a household pays 30 percent of their income to live in a NYCHA development, with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development subsidizing the rest.
The national Section 8 program, which allows tenants to put no more than 40 percent of their income toward rent in privately-owned buildings with the federal program subsidizing the difference, falls under NYCHA as well. It can also be administered by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) or New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR).
According to NYCHA’s website:
More than 400,000 New Yorkers reside in NYCHA’s 326 public housing developments across the City’s five boroughs. Another 235,000 receive subsidized rental assistance in private homes through the NYCHA-administered Section 8 Leased Housing Program.
NYCHA has come under fire in recent years for alleged mismanagement that has led to serious quality-of-life issues, most notably those involving lead paint and lack of heat. Therefore, at the beginning of 2019, the Trump administration put into place an independent federal monitor to oversee the agency.
Just as NYCHA is its own city agency, so is the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), which oversees dozens of affordable housing programs in the city, including “various new construction and preservation development programs, tax incentive programs, senior and supportive housing, tax-exempt bond deals jointly financed with the New York City Housing Development Corporation, and resiliency initiatives, among others,” according to the agency. For apartment seekers, HPD-financed housing is funneled through two lottery systems–Mitchell-Lama Housing and NYC Housing Connect.
The Mitchell-Lama Housing program was created in 1955 to provide affordable rental and cooperative housing to moderate- and middle-income families. These buildings are privately owned but are under a statute with New York state to keep prices affordable. The rents are determined by HPD based on a given housing company’s budgetary needs. Owners receive tax abatements and low-interest mortgages.
When the program was first formed, the developments could not buy out or leave for 20 years. Now, if a given building was built before 1974, it will likely then become rent-stabilized, but if it was built after that year, the building may go market rate. Between 1990 and 2005, 22,688 units, equivalent to 34 percent, of Mitchell-Lama housing was lost. However, in 2017, the city committed $250 million to protect 15,000 Mitchell-Lama apartments from going market rate.
For the cooperative buildings, residents own their units under “limited equity,” which inhibits the profit they can earn from selling their home. To opt-out of the program after a restriction period, three separate affirmative votes by the shareholders are required, two of which require a 2/3 vote in favor of opting out. According to HPD, many rental and co-ops “have agreed to remain in the program for up to an additional 35 years in return for government-subsidized loans to pay for the rehabilitation of the aging building systems.”
HPD’s second affordable housing program operates through an online portal called NYC Housing Connect (more on that to come) and includes newer units that were constructed as part of market-rate developments through either the 80/20 tax exemption or inclusionary zoning. Simply put, the 80/20 program provides tax-exempt financing to rental developers who reserve at least 20 percent of units for affordable housing. Inclusionary zoning “promotes economic integration in areas of the City undergoing substantial new residential development by offering an optional floor area bonus in exchange for the creation or preservation of affordable housing, on-site or off-site, principally for low-income households,” according to the Department of City Planning.
In certain designated areas, such as the Special Hudson Yards District and the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront, a set number of units may be set aside for middle-income households if the total number of affordable homes is greater. For a recent analysis of middle-income housing, HPD’s Juliet Pierre-Antoine told 6sqft that “the rents for middle-income apartments cross-subsidize the deeply affordable apartments in mixed-income buildings. This helps to bring more operating revenue into the building that maintains it over time without requiring as much City subsidy.”
The city breaks down affordable housing opportunities into five categories:
Extremely Low-Income: 0-30% of AMI
Very Low-Income 31-50% of AMI
Low-Income 51-80% of AMI
Moderate-Income 81-120% of AMI
Middle-Income 120-165% of AMI
For example, it’s possible for a single person earning $120,000 annually to qualify for a middle-income “affordable” apartment.
Do I qualify and how do I apply for an apartment?
There’s no one formula to find out if you qualify for affordable housing. NYCHA’s eligibility requirements are pretty straight-forward, with a simple income limit set for each family size.
The current Mitchell-Lama income limits, courtesy of NYC HPD
Mitchell-Lama is more confusing since each development requires a separate application. There are also three different types of developments, each of which has its own eligibility guidelines–federally assisted rentals, federally assisted cooperatives, and non-federally assisted units. Mitchell-Lama opportunities can only be entered via waiting lists. Thankfully, the online Mitchell-Lama Connect portal allows you to see all waitlists that are currently accepting entries, as well as those that will be opening their waitlists. The portal allows you to create a profile and submit to multiple developments.
There are then two PDF documents that list the current Mitchell-Lama buildings with open waitlists and short waitlists that operate on a lottery system. Preference is given to veterans. The lists note whether the building is rental or cooperative and federally subsidized or not. It also shows what type of units are available–studios and one- to four-bedrooms. Interestingly, to request an application, prospective residents must mail a paper application to the given address.
Currently, there are 51 buildings across the five boroughs with open waitlists (27 cooperatives and 24 rentals) and three with short waitlists (one cooperative and two rentals) of three, six, or 12 months. By comparison, people who apply to a general open waitlist may not hear back for up to four years. Mitchell-Lama recently introduced its External Waiting List Status through Mitchell-Lama Connect that allows applicants to see the current waiting list number and the date of the last approved application for each development so that they can better monitor their progress.
A portion of the Housing List available after one creates an NYC Housing Connect account
For non-Mitchell-Lama affordable housing, HPD has a centralized portal called NYC Housing Connect, which allows users to create a profile, search housing lotteries that are currently accepting applications, and, in most cases, apply to buildings right online (others may require a paper application request). In April, HPD introduced a new tool where you can search open lotteries by borough, household size, and income.
After the deadline, applications are selected for review through a lottery process. If your application is selected and you appear to qualify, you will be invited to attend an interview to continue the process of determining your eligibility. Interviews are usually scheduled from two to 10 months after the application deadline. You will be asked to bring documents that verify your household size, the identity of members of your household, your household income, and any assets you may have.
The income requirements are calculated by the area median income (AMI), a threshold set annually by HUD (not the city of New York as most assume) using data from the American Community Survey. As 6sqft previously explained:
New York City’s AMI actually includes several affluent suburbs, including Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam counties. Given that all three suburbs are generally assumed to have higher area median incomes than New York’s five boroughs, many people also assume their inclusion artificially inflates the AMI in New York City.
The most recent AMI for the NYC region, set for 2019, is $96,100 for a three-person family. In addition to falling within a certain range of this figure, applicants must also show 12 months of positive rental history. Until recently, a credit check was required, but the city changed the policy so that New Yorkers without a social security or tax ID number have an equal opportunity to apply.
What are my chances?
In May of 2016, the odds of snagging an affordable apartment were about 1,000 to 1. As 6sqft reported, from January to May of that year, 2.54 million applicants applied via Housing Connect for 2,628 affordable apartments. However, in 2018 (the most recent figures), the odds improved to 1 in 592, despite the fact that the total number of applicants nearly doubled from two years prior to more than 4.6 million. The reason for the increased odds is that they were applying for a whopping 7,857 apartments.
Additionally, you may fall into a preference category. As mentioned, veterans go to the top of the list for Mitchell-Lama housing. And most newly constructed buildings reserve 50 percent of units for applicants within their community district. There are also units reserved for prioritized groups such as municipal workers, seniors, formerly homeless individuals, and those eligible for supportive housing.
If you feel that you’ve been wrongly rejected from a development, you must first contact the managing agent from whom the rejection letter came to file an appeal, typically within 14 days.
Can I keep my affordable apartment forever?
We already touched on this regarding the 20-year Mitchell-Lama contracts, but what about within those two decades? According to the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal:
All tenants/shareholders in DHCR supervised Mitchell-Lama developments are required to report their income, and the income of all household members, annually and to comply with housing company requests for documentation. Tenants in federally-assisted developments are subject to HUD’s annual income re-certification requirements. Tenants in non-federally-assisted developments are subject to DHCR’s annual income review procedure.
When it comes to those apartments obtained through the housing lottery, it’s a bit more touch and go. According to the New York City Housing Development Corporation:
Low-income HDC-financed apartments are entered into the rent stabilization system, which would usually mean that your rent will increase by a percentage every year, based on the increase allowed by the Rent Guidelines Board. However, these increases are limited by restrictions on rent increases in the low-income housing programs. Middle-income apartments are entered into the rent stabilization system, which means that your rent will increase by a small percentage every year, based on the increase allocated by the Rent Guidelines Board.
Contrary to what most people believe, HDC notes that if a tenant’s income goes up or down it does not affect the rent. The same is true for NYCHA and Section 8.
However, if an affordable unit was financed through a city tax abatement program such as 421-a or the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (both part of the 80/20 program), you should be aware of when that abatement expires, because at that time the rent stabilization will no longer be in place and you may not be entitled to renew your lease. All of this information should be made available at the first lease signing.
If you don’t qualify for the affordable housing opportunities mentioned, visit CityRealty.com’s no-fee rentals page for other apartment deals in the city.
Editor’s Notes: This story was originally published in 2015 and has been updated. All data, income figures, and policy information reflects those most current at the time of republishing.
- Area median income: What it means and how it’s calculated
- Why middle-income New Yorkers are turning down affordable housing
- Rent Stabilization Demystified: Know the Rules, Your Rights, and if You’re Getting Cheated