This story was reported by Patrick Clark, Eliza Ronalds-Hannon and Matt Draper. An Phung and Susan Rohwer contributed. After initial publication, portions of this article were clarified or corrected, as noted below.
To find subsidized housing for a largely Polish clientele, the North Brooklyn Development Corporation's office secretary scours her newspaper daily for three-inch advertisements announcing new, “affordable” housing developments.
Another employee clips ads from the free daily distributed at his subway stop. A tenant organizer sometimes consults online listings published by city and state housing agencies, but staffers have found those entries often are outdated and incomplete.
“You have to be constantly looking for available units, but we just don't have the time or resources,” said Filip Stabrowski, a tenant organizer at the Greenpoint nonprofit. “A lot of the time, it winds up coming down to word of mouth.”
In the 21st Century, word of mouth is not how New Yorkers typically meet basic needs. The city has modernized many of its functions, building online systems for reporting potholes, appealing parking tickets and tracking the performance of police precincts and local schools. But even as the city undertakes a major expansion of its subsidized housing stock, the process of finding and applying for those apartments has become so haphazard and mysterious that many New Yorkers don't even know where to start. Others are defeated by the complexity of the system.
“It's like a maze,” said Laura Napier, a 35-year-old artist who lives in the South Bronx and has tried to use the city's online resources to find subsidized housing. “You get to the main page and then you can go off in different directions. … Often you call and the number is wrong, like you'll call and it will be a fax machine. It just became this ridiculous thing.”
A common challenge
Finding an apartment can be a nightmare for any New Yorker, but the challenge is especially frustrating for those who depend on government-subsidized housing for shelter. Like many other cities across the country, New York got out of the business of building housing projects, and instead keeps some apartments “affordable” — or at least below market rate — by subsidizing developments built by private companies and community organizations. In the new landscape, subsidized apartments are scattered throughout the city — 20 units in one building, 300 units in another.
Urban planners extol the benefit of “mixed-income” communities. But for those seeking subsidized units, the dispersed system can be even more frustrating than applying for housing through the New York City Housing Authority, which maintains wait-lists for all applicants to the developments it oversees. Since the city now relies on a dizzying array of methods and agencies to subsidize housing, no such centralized wait-list exists for the expanding number of subsidized units.
Even if an individual agency's listings are complete, the lack of a comprehensive resource that compiles all available units forces apartment hunters to surf from website to website, download and complete reams of applications, and approach each building individually to apply. Many end up going through the onerous application process, only to find out that they are ineligible for the unit.
In a city where the supply of subsidized housing will never meet the demand, the human cost of the system's confusion is hard to measure. There are indications, however, that some subsidized units across New York City have sat empty despite offering some of the best deals in town.
A 'Black Hole'
The problems have not gone unnoticed. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's six-year-old New Housing Marketplace Plan aims to address the bedrock issue — that the city does not have enough subsidized housing for those who need it — by creating and preserving 165,000 subsidized units by 2014. In February, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn complained, “Even as we work to create more affordable units, New Yorkers tell us it's incredibly difficult to access the ones we've already built.”
“Right now, the process is so out of date it's absurd,” Quinn went on to say in her State of the City address. “If you want to enter an affordable housing lottery, in most cases you actually have to send a postcard to the developer — of each individual building — then wait for them to mail you the paperwork, fill it out and mail it back.”
In a bizarre reversal on the way the private market works, subsidized housing hunters are often forbidden from attending open houses until after they submit an application.
Depending on a building's particular configuration of government loans, subsidies and tax credits, each development ends up with a set of narrow specifications for applicants' income, credit rating, residency and down payment. Because of this, it's difficult for apartment-seekers to assess whether they'll be eligible, said Josephine Perrella, the senior vice president and general manager of Phipps Houses Group, a not-for-profit developer of affordable housing.
“Applicants can be over and under income for the same apartment,” she said. “So while people may think they are eligible… they are not.”
Locating and applying for subsidized apartments is only the first step in a confusing process. The application system provides applicants with very little information about their chances of getting into a particular building, sometimes for years.
“One of the most frustrating things is that you send in an application and never hear anything back,” said David M. Pristin, director of the City Council's Policy Division, in a May interview. “It's like you're sending the application into a black hole.”
That was the experience of Roisin Wisneski, a business development writer from Fort Greene. In January of 2010, just days before the deadline to apply, Wisneski read on a local news blog about the 59 units reserved for “middle income” purchasers in the stylish and eco-friendly Atlantic Terrace building.
She fit the income requirements and liked the idea of living in a green building in her neighborhood, so she rushed in her application. In May, she was delighted to get a letter telling her that she had “won” the lottery. She gathered two years of detailed financial information, took a day off work to deliver her application, and paid $50 for a credit check. She gathered her savings and borrowed $8,000 from her family for the down payment, and prepared to cash out her 401K and Roth IRA.
And then she waited. Three months later, Wisneski still had not heard from Atlantic Terrace. When she called the developer to find out the status of her application, she learned that she was on a wait-list with 100 people ahead of her. The lucky few who had made it through to the next stage of the process were all closing on apartments, she said, “so there's 100 other people who are screwed, too.”
Even as a college-educated professional, Wisneski said, her experience with the city's affordable housing application process was confusing and demoralizing.
“I don't know who their prime targets are, but it's certainly not someone who's working, or someone who's not computer-savvy,” she said. “I'm curious about how many people parted with $50 and spent months waiting, when we really had no chance.”
The system can be especially vexing to seniors, immigrants and the disabled, some of the people who depend on subsidized housing most. Jackie Vimo, director of advocacy at the New York Immigrant Coalition, said that city and state agencies have made strides towards providing accessibility to all New Yorkers, but language barriers remain.
“Navigating the bureaucratic maze of New York's housing agencies is already daunting for native English speakers who read English well,” she said. “For immigrant New Yorkers, the challenges are even greater.” An HPD spokesman notes that the city does provide translation services in several languages.
Wisneski's experience is par for the course in a system that relies on a huge volume of applicants for each unit, including many who would never meet eligibility requirements. Because income, financial history and community-preference requirements rule out a high percentage of applicants, developers who use government subsidies typically pore through hundreds or even thousands of applications to find the handful who fit their specifications.
By the time the Solara co-op building hit the market in 2008, the 160-unit Bronx development already had received more than 3,000 applications. The two buildings, located in the Concourse section, boasted fully equipped gyms, recreation centers and a lush courtyard. Best of all, the units were city-subsidized, with prices starting at $134,100 for a two-bedroom apartment for those with annual incomes from $40,000 to $68,824.
Despite the tidal wave of applications, the development had a very difficult time finding qualified buyers. It took more than three years, and 6,000 applications, to fill its apartments.
“We are rarely seeing qualified applicants,” said Vanessa Villanueva, a sales representative for MVM Associates, the marketing agency handling applicant coordination and promotion for the developer, Grant Briarwood LLC. “They don't have the credit, income assets, work history. And some are just interested in renting.”
Finding tenants or buyers who fit the precise parameters for each building can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack, said developers and the community organizations that partner with them.
“We don't have a shortage of applicants,” said Idris Mignott, a marketing agent for the Pratt Area Community Council, which has developed several subsidized buildings. “We have a shortage of qualified applicants.”
Perrella, of the not-for-profit developer Phipps Houses Group, estimated that Manhattan and Brooklyn subsidized housing developers need about 30 applications to fill each apartment. In the Bronx, she said, they often need 50 applicants per unit.
“You might have 10,000 applicants, and at the end of the day 70 people willing to go through a very arduous process to be selected,” she said. “It's a terribly complicated system. It's like threading a needle without your glasses.”
The difficulty of attracting qualified buyers and renters is exacerbated by outdated methods of spreading information about available units. The city requires developers to promote new developments in local newspapers. Housing advocates and community organizations around the city, such as North Brooklyn Development Corporation, also try to spread the word about available apartments.
The city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the state's Department of Homes and Community Renewal publish online listings of the apartments each respectively funds. No single agency, however, offers a comprehensive list of the city's subsidized housing, and many who follow or compile the listings have said they are incomplete.
An HPD spokesman maintained that the agency adds new units to its online listings shortly after developers' newspaper advertisements run, but noted that the agency only lists units that are on the market for the first time. When the initial tenant of an HPD-funded apartment moves out, the apartment is not returned to the agency's listings.
Some of the listings of subsidized homes for sale on the HPD website don't include details like income requirements and sales prices; these are revealed at open house information sessions, an agency spokeswoman says. HPD's information on affordable rental units, which make up the majority of its program, usually does include that information.
The state agency, Homes and Community Renewal, contracts the job of managing its housing listings to a nonprofit called Socialserve.com, which is designed to update listings provided by private landlords in real time. But despite its round-the-clock service, a Socialserve.com spokeswoman, Beth Leysieffer, said a complete listing of New York State-funded subsidized housing was hard to imagine.
“Asking for a conclusive list is like entering into a mystical universe,” Leysieffer said.
'Kind of Depressing'
For applicants, the process can be disheartening. Though the HPD website lists the number of available units in each building, it doesn't facilitate online applications.
Instead, it links to PDFs that apartment-seekers must print and mail to individual developers, or phone numbers for developments that only provide applications upon request. Apartment-seekers often cannot check on the progress of their applications, and are instead told by developers that they will be contacted if they make it to the next level.
“Every time I tried to apply, I was disappointed,” said Helen Pagano, 67.
The wheelchair user spent eight years searching for housing that she could afford on social security and disability income before finally landing lodgings at the Edge Community apartments in Williamsburg.
Pagano, who described her lengthy search process as “kind of depressing,” said she heard about the Edge from a friend and was contacted for an interview six months after submitting an application.
Still, Pagano said, she considers herself lucky to have her one-bedroom apartment—priced below market rate at $995, though she pays only $165 because she holds a Section 8 voucher. And she doesn't blame the city for the long application process.
“It wasn't for any particular reason I was turned down,” Pagano said. “There are so many people that need the same things, and there isn't enough housing.”
No easy fix
The city's Byzantine subsidized housing marketplace was spawned by policies meant to make the system more effective. As early as the 1960s, critics of that era's urban planning such as the urban activist Jane Jacobs advocated a shift away from the clustered public housing projects that they said blighted the city's landscape and divided its communities, and toward privately developed subsidized housing scattered throughout market-rate buildings and mixed-income neighborhoods.
In the decades since, federal, state and city agencies have offered capital subsidies, tax credits, zoning allowances and cheap or even free land to encourage developers to create units for sale and rent to those who can't afford the city's high market-rate housing costs. These incentives shifted taxpayer dollars away from the large housing projects that many see as quagmires of poverty and crime, and toward a growing stable of private developers.
While few would argue that the government should build more housing projects, the new system has made subsidized units increasingly difficult to track — not just for home-hunters, but also for city and state agencies.
The Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University recently launched a comprehensive database of subsidized developments to address this problem, but the database is of little use to apartment-hunters.
The map-based search tool compiles information from several government agencies through the center's Subsidized Housing Information Project, and is intended for policymakers and housing advocates seeking to prevent subsidized units from going market-rate as restrictions tied to their subsidies expire, said a Furman spokeswoman. But it will not necessarily include buildings before they are occupied, when they are still accepting applications.
In her speech earlier this year, Quinn promised to make the process of searching and applying for affordable housing more user-friendly by introducing a one-stop online application. But that program is not yet up and running. And the same tangle of bureaucracy that makes applying for subsidized housing difficult is likely to hinder attempts to streamline the system.
A one-stop plan
High school seniors may dread it, but by some measures the college application process is easier than applying for subsidized housing in New York City. In fact, a pilot program that the city is working on for a one-stop online housing application is based on the “common application” for college, which allows high school students to submit a single form to any of more than 400 colleges.
In January, the City Council and HPD plan to launch an online application for two new subsidized developments, allowing apartment-seekers to check the status of their applications online, store their application information and send in applications to future openings with the click of a button. If the pilot program, which was originally scheduled to start this past summer, is successful, officials hope to extend the program to all of HPD's listings.
But even if the program is expanded across HPD, thousands of units funded by agencies other than HPD will remain outside of the system. A comprehensive listing remains among the Council's goals, Pristin said, but he added that diverse agencies and their many methods of subsidizing housing make the prospect of a fully integrated one-stop application daunting.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Portions of this story were corrected or clarified after initial publication upon City Limits' receipt of additional information from HPD.
The original wording “It is clear, however, that hundreds of subsidized units across New York City have sat empty in recent years” was changed to reflect limited knowledge of the prevalence of the problem.
Information about HPD's translation services and Helen Pagano's Section 8 status was added.
The sentence “Many of the listings on the HPD website don't include key eligibility details, such as income requirements, contact information for the developer, or even the address of the building” was changed to differentiate between ownership and rental units. The original wording was incorrect, as HPD's website does provide this information in rental listings available at http://www.nyc.gov/html/hpd/html/apartment/lotteries.shtml but not always on ownership opportunities, as here.
City Limits regrets the errors and omissions.