How one New Yorker is trying to buy her affordable housing dream

By Virginia K. Smith  | July 26, 2016 - 1:15PM

Here at Brick, we write about affordable housing nearly every day, whether it's a new listing that's taking applications or tips on navigating the process. And at a certain point (right around the time I parted with my most recent, massively overpriced rent check), it started to occur to me: Why am I not taking my own advice?

In particular, I'd long had my eye on the world of Mitchell-Lama co-ops, one of the few affordable housing deals out there for buyers, not renters. They're notorious for their years-long wait lists, so why not at least put my name down on the off-chance I qualify (and have the cash on hand for a down payment) by the time my number is up?

In the interest of putting my money where my mouth is, I'm applying to a bunch of Mitchell-Lama buildings across the city and chronicling the process here. (The idea being that readers can learn from my inevitable mistakes along the way.) And so far? It's mostly been a bunch of time on the phone.

Besides now regularly checking Mitchell-Lama Connect for new listings with online applications (and where the one current lottery link seems to be broken) the rest of the process is startlingly analog. Using the HPD website, I pulled up the list of Mitchell-Lamas that currently have open wait lists, printed it out, and started circling the buildings that I'd be interested in applying to, about a dozen in total. And then I got on the phone.

While the standard protocol is to mail the building a self-addressed envelope with your return address—in which they'll send you back an application—I called each potential building to double-check, and found that all have a slightly different process. Some have a specific person on site to whom you need to direct your letter; others prefer you send your request to a separate management office not listed online; some require a letter explaining your intentions; and a number told me they actually weren't taking applications at all. The point: It's worth it to pick up the phone and check so you don't end up wasting your time.

I took notes on different addresses or specific contacts, and decided that to err on the side of caution, I'd include in each mailing a form letter along the lines of, "To whom it may concern: My name is Virginia Smith, I'd like to request an application for a Mitchell-Lama co-op at [name and address of building]. Please send an application to my address at [none of anyone else's business but the Mitchell-Lama]."

I checked in with co-op & condo attorney Dean Roberts (FYI, a brick sponsor), who works with some of these types of buildings, and he says, "basically, you just call around and ask various Mitchell-Lamas for applications, or when they'll be opening up their wait lists. You'll get a minimal application that will ask for your name, address, and contact information." The buildings won't need to dig into my financials until—fingers crossed—I rise to the top of a waitlist and get called for an apartment. "The big driver there is income and family composition," Roberts notes.

For now, then, I'm mailing off all my application requests, and saved a list of each building I applied to, in case I move in the near future and want to get back in touch to update my address with them. (When you get off the waitlists, buildings will send you a postcard to inform you, so current contact information is imperative.)

And maybe there's hope for me yet. "While the turnover isn't great in most Mitchell-Lamas, the lists expire faster than you think," says Roberts. "People move, or they start to make too much money [to be within the income requirements]."

Stay tuned here for updates on the next steps.


Brick Underground articles occasionally include the expertise of, or information about, advertising partners when relevant to the story. We will never promote an advertiser's product without making the relationship clear to our readers.