Everything you need to know about affordable housing: applying, getting in, and staying put

Posted On Tue, October 11, 2016 By

Posted On Tue, October 11, 2016 By In affordable housing, apartment living 101, Features, More Top Stories, Policy, real estate trends, renting 101

Image via Brad Clinesmith/Flickr

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 200,000 affordable units over the next ten years, which has resulted in a slew of new lotteries for below-market rate apartments, putting his goal ahead of schedule. And let’s not forget the expiration of the controversial 421-a tax abatement, which provides incentives to developers when they reserve at least 20 percent of a building’s units for low- and moderate-income tenants. But despite the buzz-worthy roll affordable housing has been on, many are still left wondering what exactly it is.


Is there a difference between affordable housing and low-income housing?

Yes, there’s a difference between affordable housing and NYCHA housing. The latter operates public housing projects that are reserved for low-income persons (you can see the specific eligibility requirements here). NYCHA developments are built with federal, state, or city funds and are exempt from certain local laws. The national Section 8 program, which allows tenants to put 30 percent of their income toward rent in privately-owned buildings with the federal program subsidizing the difference, also falls under NYCHA.

Tanya Towers, NYC affordable housing, Mitchell-Llama housing
Tanya Towers, a popular Mitchell Llama building located in the East Village

Just as NYCHA is its own city agency, so is Housing Preservation & 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 contract with New York state to keep prices affordable. Owners of these buildings receive tax abatements and low-interest mortgages.

The typical rental contract lasts 20 years, and after that time, landlords may remove themselves from the program. 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, the equivalent to 34 percent, of Mitchell-Lama housing was lost).

For the cooperative buildings, residents own their units under “limited equity,” which inhibits the profit they can earn from selling their home. These contracts also last 20 years, after which time an owner can convert their building to market-rate status or stay in the program and continue to receive the tax incentives.

50 riverside boulevard
Extell’s 50 Riverside Boulevard, the infamous “poor door” building

The second affordable housing program goes 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 (this is what we’re talking about with the poor doors), provides tax-exempt financing to rental developers who reserve at least 20 percent of units for affordable housing. You can find out all the specifics here. 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,” according to the Department of City Planning.

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. Mitchell-Lama has its own “eligibility requirements related to income limits, family size, and apartment size. In addition, each development sets its own restrictions and limitations,” according to HPD, while new developments vary building by building based on the neighborhood’s Area Median Income (AMI).

The current breakdown for Mitchell-Lama housing is as follows:

Mitchell Lama-2016 requirements

There are then two PDF documents that list the current Mitchell-Lama buildings with open wait lists and short wait lists 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 send a snail mail letter to the given address. Currently, there are 57 buildings across the five boroughs with open wait lists and 12 with “short” wait lists of three, six, or twelve months. By comparison, people who apply to a general open wait list may not hear back for four years.

NYC Housing Connect, NYC affordable housing, affordable housing lotteriesA portion of the Housing List available after one creates a 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 some cases, apply to buildings right online (others still require a snail mail application request). According to the portal, “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 2 to 10 months after the application deadline. You will be asked to bring documents that verify your household size, identity of members of your household, and your household income.”

NYC Housing Connect, NYC affordable housing, 800 Macon Street

331 East Houston Street, NYC Housing Connect, NYC affordable housing

Above are two examples of the pages for specific buildings through NYC Housing Connect. As you can see, the income requirements are slightly different. As we previously reported, “The Housing Finance Agency’s (HFA) qualification for obtaining affordable housing is based on household income falling between a particular development’s upper and lower limits; household members meeting guidelines, a history of good credit—and obviously, no legal, criminal or housing issues.” Another important fact to note: “a lot of affordable rent seekers think they’ll end up in the less desirable units—when in truth, affordable housing units are required to be evenly distributed throughout the entire building.”

What are my chances?

NYC affordable housing

As of last summer, for every affordable apartment offered through the housing lotteries since 2013, there were 696 applicants, leaving you with a 0.14 percent chance of being selected. But as of this May, those odds worsened to 1,000 to 1. As 6sqft reported, “So far this year 2.54 million applicants have applied via the city’s Housing Connect website for 2,628 affordable apartments.”

Another factor is that since AMI is calculated based on the entire NYC region, it doesn’t always accurately fit with a neighborhood’s demographics. For example, last year’s AMI for a family of four in NYC came out to $86,300. But as of 2013, Brooklyn’s median income was only $46,085.

Before you lose hope, though, 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.

Can I stay in my apartment forever?

We already touched on this regarding the 20-year Mitchell-Lama contracts, but what about within those two decades? HPD says, “A surcharge will be added to your monthly rent/carrying charge if your adjusted household income from the prior calendar year exceeds the maximum income limit. Every year Mitchell-Lama tenants are required to complete an income affidavit. This form allows your housing company to calculate your adjusted household income and the amount of a surcharge you may have to pay.” The Metropolitan Council on Urban Housing notes that for new affordable housing construction, “Once a household rents an apartment, the income eligibility requirements are no longer the basis of the rent (even though the households are required to rectify their incomes each year.) Rents do not go up or down in proportion to the tenant’s income (as with public housing or Section 8); instead, the units are typically subject to rent-stabilization, and the rent increases follow the same guidelines as other rent-stabilized apartments.”

Use 6sqft’s map below to explore all current, ongoing housing lotteries.

If you don’t qualify for the housing lotteries mentioned, visit CityRealty.com’s no-fee rentals page for other apartment deals in the city.

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  • Sylvia Applebaum

    I applied almost five years ago to several Mitchell-Llama properties, and my husband is a veteran, and I’m just getting calls now. But unfortunately, now we longer qualify.

  • judifrancis

    Indeed – for how long will these so called affordable units be affordable? And, what is the mechanism to make sure these apts will be affordable forever? If we are to leave it to REBNY to oversee this, or individual developers, then this is a chimera. It will be what we all suspect: A political sound bite for a politician who sees himself in the White House in a few short years. LOL.

  • Doc Johnston

    I wish I had known about this program when I first moved to NY and spent years struggling to make rent. The city needs to better promote programs like these. You don’t really begin to understand the system and what’s available until you’re years in and have gone down 1,000 different paths to finally get to what’s just a relatively comfortable position.

  • Carmela Hilton

    My husband is a veteran and we have not been put on any priory list. That’s balonga. I’ve been applying for over a year and because we o recently live in Colorado we are on the end of the stick which is discrimination. They said veterans will get first prioty, it doesn’t matter if we live in Antarctica. He has a permanent lung disease from exposure to polyurethane paint and we have to relocate to low altitude so he can breathe. I was born and raised in New York City and Long Island.

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