Applying for an apartment through the New York City affordable housing lottery takes persistence. You can spend years on a waiting list before your application is considered, and the competition is almost always stiff.
But the process itself is not that difficult, and snagging one of these places can be life-changing.
“Not spending 90 percent of my income on rent gives me financial freedom,” says one lottery apartment tenant who lives in Battery Park City and has written about her experience for Brick Underground. “I can actually save money and I don't have to eat ramen every day.”
[Editor's Note: This story was originally published 2014 and updated in February 2017. NYC's affordable housing lottery process was upgraded in June 2020 and some of the information in this guide is out of date.]
In housing lottery buildings developers get tax breaks from the city and state to build, and in exchange must set aside at least 20 percent of the apartments for gainfully employed low- and middle-income renters. That's why these are sometimes known as "80/20 buildings."
For tenants in the "20" portion of 80/20s, the rent will be 30-35 percent of their or their family’s pre-tax income, depending on which tax breaks the developer takes. Public housing this is not: Many 80/20 apartments are in brand-new buildings with amenities like a doorman, gym or laundry, so snagging one can mean living in the most coveted parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
“You will find many on the Upper West Side and Upper East Side and in the Financial District and Midtown [and in] Brooklyn, as well,” says Heidi Burkhart, the president of Dane Professional Consulting Group, a commercial real estate brokerage that focuses on affordable housing.
Not surprisingly, the demand for these places is sky-high. Tenants have to meet income eligibility requirements, and from there are picked via lottery. For every 100 apartments, projects often get 10,000 applications, as the New York Times reported in 2011. 60 percent of applicants are "immediately ineligible," the Times writes, presumably because they don't meet the program guidelines.
Here are some tips on how to successfully navigate the lottery, and with any luck, land yourself an affordable, rent-stabilized apartment:
1. See if you qualify
The most important criterion for eligibility is your annual household income, which is defined as the amount before taxes earned by everyone over 18 who lives with you. In the case of people who are self-employed or otherwise don’t get a regular paycheck, income is based on an average of your earnings from the last three years.
While most units are earmarked for people making up to 60 percent of the AMI—currently $38,100 per year for an individual, and $54,360 for a family of four in New York City—it’s possible to get an 80/20 apartment even if you’re making six figures. It’s a common but “terrible” misconception that only the poor can get these places, says Rob Solano, executive director of community nonprofit Churches United for Fair Housing, noting that he’s seen people making anywhere from $17,000-$145,000 a year snag lottery rentals.
Why? While 60 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) is the cutoff for the low-income tax credit, in some cases—depending on what combination of tax credits and incentives they're working with—developers will set aside additional affordable units, sometimes up to half of the building, and broaden the income requirements to rent to people making up to 120 percent of the AMI. (We've got a full guide to how AMI and financial requirements are calculated here.)
Additionally, half of all 80/20 units are set aside for people who live within the community board (find your district here) and a small fraction are reserved for police officers, city workers, and people who are mobility or vision impaired.
Lastly, a developer may layer on additional requirements to make sure you’re a responsible tenant. For example, they could deny you a spot if you have bad credit.
2. Build your target list
Finding a housing lottery building could be as easy as walking around your neighborhood, since developers are required to post application information at construction sites. In fact, Solano recommends applying for developments in your area, since you’ll automatically have a better chance of getting picked in the lottery because of the program's preference for locals.
Also, NYC Housing Connect is a city-run website where you can research and apply for new affordable housing projects. The site maintains a list of buildings that are getting rented out for the first time. Once you register for an account on the site, you can also sign up to receive email alerts when new developments start taking applications.
Local news outlets are another source of info, since developers are required to advertise in at least three publications, including a citywide newspaper. Local blogs and news sites like us here at Brick Underground, as well as Brokelyn and YIMBY often cover new affordable housing developments that are getting built or taking applications.
But don't limit your search to brand new buildings: If there’s one major mistake that would-be 80/20 renters make, it’s not actively seeking out apartments beyond what's listed on Housing Connect, Solano says. Units become available in older buildings when tenants move out, and usually landlords handle those rentals themselves, rather than advertising them through the city website. As part of the program, landlords are required to maintain a waitlist of people interested in receiving applications for vacant units.
Call different management companies and ask them if they have a waitlist you can sign up for. A few that Solano recommends are C & C Apartment Management, the Mutual Housing Association of New York and St. Nick's Alliance. And it doesn’t hurt to try Google, with search terms like "affordable housing" or "marketing management groups."
Guy Olivieri, an actor and writer who moved into an 80/20 rental in lower Manhattan in 2008—he pays $1,000 a month for a one-bedroom that normally goes for $4,000 a month—maintains a list of buildings which occasionally have vacancies on his blog. Though the original story is a few years old, Olivieri periodically posts updates in the comments, and includes links to numerous housing resources and hotlines for finding 80/20 rentals. To find his apartment, Olivieri sent out a round of postcards every few months for three years starting in 2001, asking building managers to send him applications so he could get his name on the list for when apartments became available. His site has sample text to include on such a postcard.
Then, after “a lot more research,” he narrowed the list of buildings he contacted for applications. Six months after he sent out that round of postcards, he received an application for an apartment that would eventually become his home.
The moral of the story? Just because you miss out on one lottery doesn’t mean you can’t apply for more. Solano recommends applying to 20-25 buildings per year. And though they're different from "80/20" lottery buildings, we'd also recommended doing the legwork to find and inquire about vacancies in as many regular rent-stabilized buildings as possible—tips on that here.
3. Apply to the building(s)
Your first step is to fill out a profile on Housing Connect with general information like your family size and income. You can also submit a paper version, but not both.
A developer will then send you a hefty paper application to submit. There are no broker’s or application fees, but you may have to pay a credit check fee if you get to the interview stage.
To move to the next step of the process, your application will need to be selected in a lottery. Representatives from the development company and the city "take the sealed applications to a separate location, mix them by hand and empty them into a large bag,” according to the website for the city Housing Development Corporation, one of the agencies that sponsors the program. The developer randomly draws an application, assigns it a number, and logs relevant details like name, address, family size, income and community board district. The list of names can grow to 20 times the number of units available, since a lot of applicants won’t be eligible, HDC says.
In new buildings, the lottery typically happens a few weeks after the application deadline, Solano says. But in older buildings, it can take years to get to the top of the waiting list. Either way, if you’re selected, the developer will contact you to schedule an interview, and from here the process picks up speed.
4. Prepare for your interview
If your application is selected in the lottery, you'll have roughly two weeks to prepare for your interview and get all your paperwork in order, Solano says. This is one of the most difficult, and important, steps in the process, he explains, because if you don’t have the right stuff you can jeopardize your chances of securing an apartment. (Now that you're reading this, it may be worth doing some of the prep work now, before you even send off an application.)
You’ll need to bring things like pay stubs, tax returns, bank statements, a copy of your current lease, a year’s worth of rent receipts, and several types of identification. Check Housing Connect for a full list, as well as our guide from a renter who recently went through the process.
“The paperwork, you have to submit, is a little intimidating,” Olivieri says. “I had to ask a lot of questions, and solicited help from several people”—like parents and a lawyer—“to even understand what I needed to bring. It's not impossible by any means, but with so much on the line, you want everything you present to be perfect.”
These days, the most common reason people get denied once they’ve gotten picked in the lottery is because they have bad credit, Solano says. HDC encourages developers to look at a person’s credit history holistically—the fact that you don't owe thousands of dollars is a better indicator than a credit score—"credit is important with any rental,” he says, “and especially with affordable housing.”
That means before you go for an interview, you’ll want to fix your credit if you need to. Churches United can help with that.
Which brings us to the interview. Just like in any rental situation, the landlord is trying to make sure you’ll pay the rent on time and generally be a good tenant. But in this case, the developer also wants to see whether you'll stick out in a swank building. Yes, it sounds awful, but it’s true, experts say.
“What they really are looking for are quiet, non-disturbing people who will not disrupt the ambience of the building,” says Dean Roberts, a real estate attorney at Norris McLaughlin & Marcus who works with affordable housing. "The key component to these interviews is to exude stability."
That means if you’re someone who’s moved every six months, been involved in a lawsuit with your landlord, or bounced a rent check, be ready to explain why.
Think of it like a job interview, Solano advises. Go in with professional attire, a positive attitude and a willingness to move out of your current apartment.
“You have to sell yourself," he says. "You have to show the best of you.”
That said, while it can sometimes feel like landlords are actively trying to stop you from renting—especially in the case of affordable housing—when your application gets pulled, the management company may surprise you with how helpful they are.
“They clearly have strict requirements for qualifying, and those can't be bent, but they want people to qualify, and they're willing to help,” Olivieri says. For example, since he didn’t have a lease, he couldn’t show the manager a copy, so she suggested that he get his landlord to write a letter stating the amount he paid in rent and have it notarized.
“She even pointed me to the local notary,” he says.
5. Get ready for a home visit
If your interview goes well, you’ll probably get a home visit.
“Someone is sent to confirm your current living space, so they visited my parents' apartment where I was still sharing a bedroom with my 17-year-old brother,” says the Battery Park City tenant, who moved into her place in 1999, as a 19-year-old.
For Olivieri, this was the easiest part of the process, and took place about four months after the interview.
“I was worried the inspector was going to scrutinize my apartment. I scrubbed it top to bottom, I baked cookies, I had coffee ready. He looked around for 30 seconds, approved me, and left,” he says. "Easy."
The idea is to confirm that you’re a reasonably good tenant, Roberts says.
“You’re not going to sway them with being charming and nice, although it’s nice to be polite,” he says. “He’s not going to say the cookies were delicious, but the tea was lukewarm.”
However, if you’re crashing on a friend’s couch or sharing an apartment with more than one family—as many people in need of affordable housing are doing—it’s best to discuss the home visit with them ahead of time, and explain how it can benefit everyone to get you into your own place, Solano advises. He is critical of the home visit, however, since it introduces subjective and potentially irrelevant information to the screening process.
Also, be sure to explain to the inspector if the place isn’t your house or if there are any red flags, like broken radiators or holes in the wall, that aren't your fault, Solano says.
6. Sign the lease
Provided you meet all the eligibility criteria, don’t be surprised if you’re signing a lease just a few months after your name comes up, experts say. But note that if your income changes at any point between when you fill out the application and when you move in, you could lose the apartment—even if construction delays stall the whole process.
“It isn’t your apartment until you’re actually inside the apartment,” Solano says.
7. Live happily, if not perfectly, ever after
Once you’re in, you cannot be kicked out for making more than the initial income brackets allow, Solano says. Your rent will rise based on the standard rules set forth for rent-stabilized apartments, whether you make more or less than on the day you moved in.
However, every year, tenants must submit to a recertification process to verify their current living situation, including to make sure that the people whose names are on the lease are still the ones in the apartment. In the case of the Battery Park City renter, for example, that involves submitting a slew of documents—pay stubs, tax returns, bank statements and more—annually.
Affordable housing can be “a life-transforming bit of luck,” in Olivieri’s words, but it also comes with sacrifices. For example, our Battery Park City tenant decided to go to college part-time, since full-time students are not eligible for 80/20 rentals.
“It took me a while to graduate, which definitely impacted my career,” she tells Brick Underground. “I felt behind my peers because everyone was interning or starting entry level jobs while I was finishing school—and working in retail!”
Also, she hasn't lived anywhere else as an adult. Sure, it's the kind of problem you want to have, but it's worth considering how the whole experience may play out.
Also keep in mind that, while in theory many New Yorkers want their city to be a place normal people can afford to live in, in practice, not every market-rate renter is happy about the 80/20 arrangement, where people pay wildly different rents for nearly identical places. As an affordable tenant, you may find yourself using a separate entrance (the so-called poor door that has generated controversy) or raising the hackles of your market-rate neighbors.
“There are no problems with trouble or noise,” one StreetEasy commenter wrote on a message board thread on the program, “but it does bother you when you consider that you are paying top dollar for what others in the building are getting for next to nothing.”
And let's just say, that was one of the more polite comments on the forum.
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