The NYC Housing Lottery: All you need is a low enough income and a dream

By Kelly Kreth  |
August 16, 2012 - 9:10AM

I recently entered a NYC Housing “Lottery” which turned out to be only slightly less stressful than that described in Shirley Jackson’s short story of the same name. While I didn’t have to go through a public stoning by the community, the sheer amount of paperwork one must compile and present in addition to doing in-person interviews was daunting. The ultimate possibility for rejection? Profound.

In NYC oftentimes when a luxury rental building is being constructed, developers will offer 20% of the units to lower-to-middle income tenants at a drastically reduced rate in order to get tax incentives. 

So when I heard about one on the site in Hell’s Kitchen at the start of the year I applied.

It works like this: Lotteries are announced on the city's housing site; information on income restrictions and ranges is listed and varies from building to building; if you fit the income range, download an application from the site or write to request one. 

You then fill it out and send it in. And then pray for the magic to happen. Out of thousands of applicants only a few hundred are chosen to actually participate in the review process. They are typically chosen randomly. 

For the one I applied for this summer--a building going up on 39th Street called Crystal Green  (the building is still in its early stages so there's no website to speak of yet)--I was told over 10,000 applications were received and those applicants who currently lived within the same community board were given first priority along with the disabled.

Names were randomly chosen and the lucky applicants received a letter with an appointment date on it. 

I had applied in the past to several lotteries and only advanced to the interview once, about three years ago, at Midtown's Emerald Green luxury rental building (pictured). After a rigorous interview process (more on that below), I was ultimately rejected for going over the income requirement by a measly $600 per year.

This time around, I was again one of the lucky ones to advance to the interview process.  I was given about 10 days to compile originals and copies of my passport, birth certificate, social security card, last three years of income tax returns including 1099s (I’m a freelancer), the last six months of my ConEd, cable, phone and internet services bills, the last six months of all savings and checking account activity and balances including all ATM withdrawals and deposits, my last six months of rent receipts, contact information for my current and past landlord, verification of income for the last six months (this is tricky for freelancers because we do not have check stubs and our income varies) and two money orders for application fees. 

I’m super-organized and love nothing better than a project. I got an eight-pocket file folder, and neurotically labeled each section and color-coded each category. 

I carefully organized each request chronologically with originals on top and copies behind. I carried that binder around for days like a mental patient showing it to the T-mobile clerk who kindly printed out my last bills and then onto my bank manager explaining why I was requesting they do days of work trying to find copies of each check I deposited from clients in the last six months.

Luckily, after explaining what a huge payoff it would be to get a nearly $3,600 one-bedroom for about $800 a month, they were all rooting for me. 

I had gone through this process before, so I was wary while trying to remain optimistic. Last time I went on the interview I was sure I’d make it because I fit perfectly in the required salary range for the last three years. I had all the paperwork required and a perfect binder, but what they had neglected to say was that if you have a large sum of money in the bank they raise your total income. They took one look and ruled me out. 

Frustrated, I tried to ascertain what formula they used to calculate how much each dollar in savings would bring up one’s gross income. I asked what metrics they used to determine total gross income beyond any assets and actual income reported to the IRS. 

I never got a straight answer and even appealed to the lottery review commitee but was simply told that I was $600 over their limit. 

This time around, I was sure to apply even though my income was slightly under what they needed. I knew that as I still had that added savings, they’d add it to my "income" and bring me right in the middle of the range. 

I showed up early, took a seat, my beautifully crafted binder of my lap, less Penske file and more a work of art. I looked around at the other applicants and sized them up. I noted one carried her paperwork in scraps in a brown paper bag. I stroked my color-coded binder and wished presentation was all that mattered.

There were neck tattoos, see-through tank tops, what appeared to be immigrant families, screaming children and one very pregnant teenager.

As a kid who grew up on welfare I could only liken the housing review office to a welfare one, albeit one a step-up from the ones I visited in the 70s and early 80s with my mother.

It was clean and neat but lacked any sort of ambiance beyond what can be described as “free cheese."(As a kid we actually stood on the free government cheese line so I know of what I speak.) The staff was efficient, polite and no-nonsense.

I was quickly ushered to a very nice woman who painstakingly reviewed my paperwork with me. I was asked over and over about assets I might have, about any past or present drug use, why I wanted to live there and a myriad of other questions that at this point are all a blur.

I answered all honestly, knowing from past experience they double and triple check all financial information and would be doing a home-visit should I pass to that stage.

Those who still fit in the income requirements after the near two-hour review were asked to submit a money order for a credit check. I made it to the next step as did at least two others while I was there.
One lady who was not invited to pass to the next level lost her shit and started yelling at a reviewer. GAME OVER!

I was asked about my dog; I proudly showed his picture indicating he was under the maximum weight limit (and oh-so-cute).

The trickiest part for me was conveying my income. My tax returns indicate that I am in their income range, but it is important to understand small business owners are allowed many deductions. It can be a bit confusing; luckily the reviewer had been a real estate agent and past 1099er herself so she understood the paperwork I was submitting perfectly.

This time I made it through the whole two-hour interrogation. The oddest question I was asked was how much money I had on me at that very second. I said $60 and they added that in the income column. 

What I found noteworthy was at the interview three years prior the reason why I went over their allowed income was that I had a large sum of money in my business account and this time the reviewer refused to even look at my business account. 

I explained to her that it seemed odd because last time that was whole reason why I didn’t make it. At the end they said even though I had applied for a one-bedroom (there were 10 studios, 20 one-bedrooms and 10 two-bedrooms up for grabs) my income was too low to qualify for that so they’d mark me down as applying for a studio, for which the rent would be $586.

With the opportunity to get a brand new unit in a super-luxury building that included an in-unit washer and dryer, a dishwasher, a pool, outdoor space, elevator and doorman in a Midtown high-rise for nearly one-fifth of the market price, I certainly wasn’t one to balk. 

I left and the only thing they needed me to send by the end of the week was my divorce certificate to show why my surname changed. 

I exited feeling great that I was still in the running to be America’s Next Top Apartment Lottery Winner. 

A few days later my agent called to tell me they ran my credit and all was good. I was imagining myself leaving my shitty, expensive walk-up and moving on up. I looked for signs everywhere. 

One night I lay in bed trying to visualize doing my laundry in my new home when I was interrupted out of my daydream by my cell buzzing alerting me that there was a new message. Even though it was just a piece of spam that somehow got past Hotmail’s filter, the subject titillated me: Lottery Winner. I took it as a sign! The Universe was speaking to me!

A few days after that I spent the day in the hospital. I have been having some scary (and costly) medical problems and this cheaper, less stressful building would be a godsend. 

As I lay in the E.R. sharing my space with an old woman, she asked where I live. I told her and she said she lived nearby on 38th Street. I immediately thought of the lottery. 

A few minutes later she explained that she won a housing lottery three years ago and now lived in Emerald Green, the building that had rejected for having too high of an income. She regaled me with tales of the gorgeous pool, her in-apartment washing machine and dryer and the view from her 20th floor unit. 

In the three years she has been there her rent has only gone from $486 to $500.  I relayed my story to her, divulging that I was actually in the middle of a lottery decision and she said she was sure this was a sign and that we met for a reason and that surely I’d be picked to live in the companion building to hers, Crystal Green. 

I already was friends with a neighbor! Another reason I should come out a winner. The Universe had spoken!

The following day they called me yet again with several more questions: Why did I pay a full year of rent up front? (I had to because I’m a freelancer and it is hard to show I make 40X the annual rent required by my management company). Why did I recently move? (see Peeping Tom story ). Where did I get the money for the check they see for the full year of rent (transferred from my business account which I had tried to show them on day-one of the interview and that I made clear was an account I pay bills from because as a sole proprietor, it's only my money).

Each day I went to the mailbox hoping there would be nothing in it. I knew the next step was to get a call from the selection committee to set up a home-visit to check out where I live now. If that went well one of the last steps would be to meet with the building’s management office and see the unit I would be offered. 

But it was not to be. Last week I got a dastardly letter saying they determined my income is too high. Again! 

Even though at the in-person interview they had said my income was too low to even apply for a one-bedroom. Baffling! 

I have written to find out, once again, what formula they are using to calculate the added income because according to assets and my tax returns I’m way under their allotted maximum income. I would also like to know how much over they are saying I am. Again, no response.  

Glenwood Management : If you are reading, give a girl another chance or at least explain where your reviewers are coming up with their final income figure. 

In the meantime, I will keep trying, and hope that the third time--should I get the chance--will be the charm.

Kelly Kreth, recently returned to Hell’s Kitchen, chronicles her misadventures in her tenement-style walk-up in this bi-weekly BrickUnderground column, Hell’s Bitchen

See all Hell's Bitchen.

Also by Kelly Kreth:

Hell's Bitchen: I vow never to move again

Hell's Bitchen: Meet my super, Aquavelva

15 things I've learned from 'Million Dollar Listing NY' so far

The 20 deadly sins NYC rental agents should never commit (but do)

Escape from the UES: Goodbye douchebaggery, hello Hell's Kitchen

Dear Neighbor: I am your worst nightmare

Living next to a bridge & tunnel club: KY Jelly wrestling, all-night noise, no regrets




Kelly Kreth

Contributing writer

Contributing writer Kelly Kreth has been a freelance journalist, essayist, and columnist for more than two decades. Her real estate articles have appeared in The Real Deal, Luxury Listings, Our Town, and amNewYork. A long-time New York City renter who loves a good deal, Kreth currently lives in a coveted rent-stabilized apartment in a luxury building on the Upper East Side.

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