Affordable Housing ‘Maze’ Confronts Tenants

Patrick Clark, Eliza Ronalds-Hannon and Matt Draper for City Limits |

A New York nightmare

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.

Helen Pagano, 67, landed a one-bedroom in the Edge Community Apartments in Williamsburg for $165 per month. City Limits/An Phung

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. It is clear, however, that hundreds of subsidized units across New York City have sat empty in recent years despite offering some of the best deals in town — and that the opaqueness of the application process leaves thousands of those seeking housing in the dark.

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.”

Read the full post at City Limits.

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