Sadef Kully / City Limits

Advocates rallied outside City Hall before a City Council hearing on a number of housing bills.

The city’s housing agency, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), was confronted by Councilmembers on Monday during a City Council hearing that examined six pieces of legislation aimed at issues from the housing lottery system to apartments for the homeless.

The hearing comes before HPD launches a modernized version of its online affordable-housing lottery system, which will also include a partnership with the Mitchell-Lama housing lottery system. The main focus of the hearing was that lottery process.

Councilmember Mark Treyger’s bill would force HPD to report on housing lottery outcomes, while a measure by Councilmember Jumaane Williams would mandate reports on the waiting lists of Mitchell-Lama housing developments.

“We are not asking for names or addresses. To be very blunt I think my colleagues are hearing from those who are being rejected for unclear reasons than those who are winning the lottery. We would like to know what is working and what is not working. And to finally answer the question affordable for who?” said Treyger.

HPD said that they did not report data such as race because it could identify those individuals and their families, but it did report via NYC Open Data the income levels of those who won the housing lottery.

In order to address some of the inconsistencies, such as a complicated application process for the housing lottery and housing for the homeless, the Councilmembers have introduced bills that would facilitate an affordable housing lottery task force, better tracking of construction issues such as wage theft and an increase in housing units set aside for homeless individuals and/or families required by developers who receive city financial assistance.

Bronx Councilmember Rafael Salamanca said his legislation, to make 15 percent of the minimum amount of housing units set aside for homeless families or individuals in all new housing developments that receive the city’s financial assistance, was vital to combat homelessness in the city.

Salamanca said the city was not doing enough for the homeless, and argued that his legislation could give the homeless a home rather than a place in the city’s shelter system.

But HPD responded that the 15 percent mandate would not help attract developers to its programs and could derail delicate financing. “A typical affordable housing deal has five or six sources of financing and it is not uncommon to see even more. These sources, both public and private, at all levels of government, each [has] its own restriction and requirements. Losing even one financing source due to incompatible restrictions can stop a project in its track. Our hard work packaging together these multiple funding streams not only allows the projects to be built in the first place but ensures the financial solvency of the building and therefore a stable housing source for New Yorkers,” said Molly Park, deputy commissioner for development at HPD.

Other pieces of proposed legislation addressed different aspects of HPD’s programs such as Councilmember Antonio Reynoso’s bill to bring changes to how the city markets affordable housing units. A bill by Councilmember Helen Rosenthal would require better reporting of construction conditions in development projects; another by Councilmember Mark Levine would create an affordable housing lottery task force to review the lottery system and make recommendations for improvements.

Reynoso raised concerns about how the city determines whether an individual qualifies for the housing lottery. He said a firefighter from his district, who makes $43,000 annually, tried to apply for the housing lottery but was told he could not qualify because of the overtime he collected, “He comes to my office asking for help and I try to do everything I can in power to help him but I am told no by HPD. I want you to explain that to a common New Yorker. Those are some of scenarios we are putting our residents in. Can you explain that logic?”

HPD said the income standards they rely on are federal standards and they are absolutely required for tax credits and other types of federal funding. “We use the same standards across all of our lotteries,” said Margaret Brown, associate commissioner for housing opportunity and program services. “It would be unfair for people to qualify using two different sets of standards. Federal standards require us to look at overtime as part of income.” Brown explained that applicant’s projection of income over the coming year is a key factor in determining eligibility.

But other members had similar concerns about income levels. “I just cannot overemphasize what Councilmember Reynoso is talking about. We have hard-working lower, middle-class individuals who are making choices to underachieve so that they can receive affordable housing,” said Robert Cornegy, chair of the Council Sub-Committee on Housing and Buildings.

Those worries about working-class people being over-income for affordable housing come after years of complaints that affordable housing was out of reach for people with incomes too low.

The committee also heard from homeless and housing advocates who wanted the city to do more for those most vulnerable in the city.

The advocates from the campaign House Our Future NY have asked the city to increase the total number of housing units for homeless households to 30,000, adding that 24,000 of those units should be new construction. The campaign supports Salamanca’s bill because it helps to meet the campaign’s goals.

But groups such as Habitat for Humanity do not fully support Salamanca’s bill because it does not specify particular properties and instead targets all housing projects receiving public assistance, including homeownership. The organization said the bill would make it difficult to finance preservation projects.

“Without addressing how such projects might receive additional financial resources to ensure building sustainability and how homeless individuals and families in need of special services will be provided in these smaller and cooperative projects. Habitat NYC will not be able to support such legislation,” said Matthew Dunbar, vice president of external affairs for Habitat for Humanity, in his testimony.