Better Than the Powerball

Better Than the Powerball

For New Yorkers looking for an affordable home, the odds of winning a housing lottery are 1 in 592.

Lizzie Villas Boas spent three years in a shelter for victims of domestic violence before winning a housing lottery.CreditCreditJoshua Bright for The New York Times

By Julie Satow

Winning a spot in one of New York City’s affordable housing lotteries might seem completely out of reach, the stuff of urban legend.

But every day across the five boroughs, tens of thousands of New Yorkers play the odds, and a lucky few check their inboxes to discover they have won an affordable new home. For some, the welcome news may have come just months after they first applied, while for others, it may have taken years.

“I was like, ‘Are you being serious?’ For a minute I thought it was a joke,” said Josh Boscarino, 28, a former actor, after hearing that he had won a large rent-stabilized studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with an oversized window facing the waterfront, months after submitting his first application.

Winners include older adults who rely on Social Security as their sole income and 30-something singles with graduate degrees earning six figures. The vast majority of the units awarded are rent-stabilized apartments that range in price from a few hundred dollars a month to nearly market-rate amounts, although the lotteries also offer some below-market-rate condominiums and cooperatives, and even a few coveted single-family houses.

The lotteries are run by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Housing Development Corporation, and are open to New Yorkers who earn no more than $120,615 for a single person or $199,650 for a family of six. And the demand is so high that it is not unheard-of for the city to receive as many as 58,000 applicants for 58 apartments.

The housing stock available is built and owned by private developers who typically receive subsidies, tax abatements or zoning benefits in exchange for creating below-market-rate units. The units can be found in buildings that are entirely affordable housing, as well as those that include a mix of affordable and market-rate apartments, depending on the type of subsidy the developer received.

Applicants chosen in the agency’s random drawings are screened by the developers, who verify income and interview candidates (a process that is separate from the city’s public housing, which is owned and operated by the New York City Housing Authority).

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made affordable housing a priority, promising to build or preserve a total of 300,000 units by 2026. As part of that effort, the number of apartments made available through the lotteries has increased in recent years. In 2018, some 7,857 apartments were awarded by lottery, compared with 2,741 in 2012, before Mr. de Blasio took office. The administration has also streamlined the application process, creating NYC Housing Connect, a website translated into seven languages, where applicants can fill out a profile and enter multiple lotteries with the click of a button.

But the increase in the number of units available has been accompanied by a surge in the number of people applying. In 2018, there were more than 4.6 million applicants, with the odds of winning just 1 in 592. In 2012, there were fewer units available, but the odds were far better, at 1 in 80; in 2011, they were 1 in 63.

Despite those daunting statistics, chances of winning are better than it may seem. That is because many of those who apply are disqualified, either because their earnings exceed or are below the requirements for a specific development, or because they fail to provide the necessary paperwork, including work history and tax records.

And depending on the housing project, preference may be given to those who meet certain criteria, like municipal workers, the homeless or residents of the neighborhood where the development is being built. (The latter, known as community preference, has come under attack for perpetuating racial segregation in some neighborhoods, and in the wake of a growing homeless population, some have also criticized the lottery program for not giving enough preference to the homeless.)

Those who have won housing lotteries are a diverse group, from a variety of socioeconomic, racial and geographic backgrounds. Despite their differences, however, they tend to have something in common: Many have faced challenging life events, and nearly all insist that the key to winning the lottery is determination.

“You have to know how to hustle and be on it,” said Erika Lindsey, an urban planner who spent nearly a decade applying to lotteries before winning a one-bedroom in Brooklyn, near Barclays Center. “My main advice is to be persistent.”

Lizzie Villas Boas suffers from hip dysplasia and has had 25 surgeries and four hip replacements. “I’ve had to learn to respect my pain,” said Ms. Villas Boas, 57, who is from Brazil. “I cannot change my life, and so I always try and find the happiness.”

Her first purchase for her new home reflects that. In October, when she moved into her new one-bedroom in the South Bronx, Ms. Villas Boas went to Target to fill her empty refrigerator. As she wandered the aisles, her eyes alighted on a wooden sign that read, “Give Thanks Always.”

Ms. Villas Boas, who gets around on a scooter, depends on Supplemental Security Income, and she couldn’t afford what amounted to a luxury, but she splurged on it anyway.

“I just had to have it,” she said of the sign, which hangs over her kitchen sink. It is one of her few furnishings: The television set in her living room sits on a stack of empty moving boxes, and another pile of boxes serves as a coffee table.

The mother of two adult sons, Ms. Villas Boas is twice divorced; her second husband, she said, had been abusive since they married in 2007. In 2015, a nurse assisting her helped her leave her husband and get a place in a shelter for domestic abuse victims in the East Village. After spending nearly three years there and applying to several housing lotteries, she finally won a place of her own.

“This apartment is a physical space where I can exercise my love with my family,” she said. “I would like to eventually buy a table, maybe even a recliner, but I’m not in a hurry. For now, I have all I need.”

Josh Boscarino was a struggling actor working at the Fifth Avenue Apple store in Manhattan when he applied for the lottery. He won a studio at Greenpoint Landing, in Brooklyn.
CreditJoshua Bright for The New York Times

In 2015, Josh Boscarino was renting a room in a four-bedroom apartment in Hamilton Heights, in Manhattan, trying to make it as an actor while working at the Apple store on Fifth Avenue.

“I was just fed up,” said Mr. Boscarino, 28. “I had three roommates, but it was a constant revolving door of people.”

In desperation, he began searching for “affordable housing” and “NYC” online, and stumbled onto a link to the city’s housing lotteries. “I had heard about the lottery before,” he said, but dismissed the idea. “I mean, nobody wins the lottery. But I wasn’t making a lot of money and there just weren’t a lot of other options.”

That fall, he filled out a housing lottery profile, and whenever there was a development that fit his income level — $35,000 to $45,000 — he applied. Six months later, he received an email notifying him that he had qualified for an interview at an affordable building at Greenpoint Landing, a 22-acre mega project on the Brooklyn waterfront.

After the interview, he heard nothing for five months. Then, in August of 2016, less than a year after he first applied, he found out he had been accepted into the building.

“There’s this misconception that I would never qualify for the lottery, that I make too much money,” said Mr. Boscarino, who has given up acting and now works as a finance associate for a theater merchandising company. “But that’s not true. The lottery is for everyone — well, not rich people obviously — and anyone who is considering it should apply.”


To be eligible for a lottery at Essex Crossing, Elsie Rivera had to ask the elementary school she attended to provide proof that she lived on the Lower East Side as a child.CreditYana Paskova for The New York Times

Elsie Rivera had to do some sleuthing to win her apartment at Essex Crossing, a new 1.9-million-square-foot project on the Lower East Side that includes retail and office space, restaurants and more than 1,000 units of housing. About half the apartments there are designated as permanently affordable, some of them set aside for people who lived in the neighborhood when it was cleared for redevelopment in the late 1960s. But in order to qualify, applicants must show documentation proving their prior residency.

Ms. Rivera, 60, whose niece is City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, used to live in the area, on Suffolk Street, but left years ago.

“I was there as a child,” she said. “But the building burned down and we had to move away.”

After living in Brooklyn, she returned to the neighborhood, moving to a place on Montgomery Street, near her old home. One day, her childhood friend Tito Delgado, a community activist, handed her an application for Essex Crossing and urged her to apply.

But how would she prove she had once lived on Suffolk Street? Ms. Rivera had an idea. “I went to my old school, P.S. 42, and asked them if they had anything with my name and address on it. And, thank God, they did! They were able to prove it.”

Now she lives in a brand-new one-bedroom with stainless-steel appliances and a view of Delancey Street. “It is so beautiful,” she said. “My neighbor down the hall used to know my mom. It’s beautiful that they kept us together.”


Erika Lindsey faced less competition than most in the lottery because her income is at the upper end of the limits established for one person.CreditJoshua Bright for The New York Times

Erika Lindsey is nothing if not persistent. Ms. Lindsey, 36, spent eight years applying to housing lotteries before she won her dream home.

In 2010, she was working as a senior policy adviser and urban planner for the city and living in a fourth-floor walk-up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “My neighbors in Bed-Stuy were leaving for East New York because the rent was going up,” she said. “And it was stressful always having to sign a new lease.”

So Ms. Lindsey, who is now a design research fellow at the Public Policy Lab, a job that puts her in an income range of $85,000 to $95,000, looked into the housing lottery. She was hopeful about her prospects, as she was a municipal employee and would also benefit from the preference for community residents when she applied for buildings in Brooklyn. Even so, it was tough going.

Seven years into her lottery odyssey, in June 2017, Ms. Lindsey finally received a notice that she had made it to the interview phase at 250 Ashland Place, a 52-story rental tower just off Fulton Street. The following month she was put on a wait list for a unit, but “then it was radio silence,” she said. “I never got a response. I had to keep calling and asking, ‘Any word? Any update?’”

Then she heard from another lottery, for a rent-stabilized building on Carlton Avenue, where she interviewed for an apartment. As in all fully regulated buildings, the 297 units there were being offered to a wide range of incomes, from a single person earning $20,126 annually to a family of six with an income of $173,415. In January 2018, she moved into a sizable one-bedroom with a large bathroom.

Because Ms. Lindsey’s income is at the upper end of the range for one person, she faced less competition than others in the housing lottery. In fact, the building struggled to find people who qualified for the rent-stabilized apartments with higher income requirements. The developer eventually listed some of the units on the website StreetEasy, where most homes are market rate, in a bid to attract tenants.

The rents on apartments like Ms. Lindsey’s can be nearly as expensive as those found on the open market, if not more so. But as the city sees it, having a mix of incomes helps create a more diverse building, and higher-income units also help landlords offset the cost of providing apartments to lower-income tenants.

Ms. Lindsey concedes that her apartment isn’t exactly “affordable,” and that she pays more now than she did in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where her rent was $1,450 a month. But her new building has more amenities — and it isn’t a walk-up.

“I did the math: I spent $200 a month on Lyfts, because I often had to take a car home at night, so I’m saving on that,” she said. And because you cannot be evicted based on income increases once you win a housing lottery, she added, “I told myself that at some point, because it is rent-stabilized, the apartment will feel like a deal.”


Benito Gonzalez is grateful for the one-bedroom apartment he won in Far Rockaway, Queens, but is struggling to find the money to furnish it.CreditJoshua Bright for The New York Times

For Benito Gonzalez, winning the housing lottery was like, well, winning the lottery.

“I fell on my knees crying,” he said. “I was so happy that I was finally going to have a place to call my own. At my age, it is the greatest blessing I could receive.”

Mr. Gonzalez, 68, who relocated from Puerto Rico in 1966, had been living for years with a girlfriend in the Bronx. But his name wasn’t on the lease, and when she died he was evicted. He ended up in a homeless shelter, and then rented a room in the basement of his sister’s house in Queens.

“It was like living in a box,” said Mr. Gonzalez, who depends on Supplemental Security Income. “There were only small windows, and you couldn’t see the street, and it was cold like crazy.”

In 2009, he began applying to every housing lottery for which he qualified. Last year, he finally received notice that he had been approved for a building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But when he went to the developer’s office for his interview, he saw a rendering of a building he preferred, on Channel Drive in Far Rockaway, Queens.

“So what did I do?” he said. “I told the person interviewing me, ‘Listen, I don’t want this building. I want that building.’”

And Mr. Gonzalez got his wish. In November, he signed a lease on a one-bedroom in the new tower, with unimpeded views of the water and the Manhattan skyline. “I was coming out here on the train, and tears were coming out,” he said. “I’ve lived in a lot of bad neighborhoods, and this place, it is so quiet.”

Still, his new home didn’t have everything he wanted. “They gave me the apartment, but it was empty,” he said. “They told me I don’t qualify for the furnished apartments, because they are reserved for people who are homeless.”

He has applied to the city’s Human Resources Administration for help buying furniture. But for now, he sleeps on a bed from his sister’s house, and there is a single table in his otherwise empty living room.

Even so, he said, “Not since I was young have I had an apartment of my own — this is a dream.”


For Rachel Kambury, an editorial assistant, the best thing about her new home is having the space for all her books.
CreditYana Paskova for The New York Times

For Rachel Kambury, an editorial assistant at a publishing house, the best part of winning a housing lottery is being able to see her books. “Most of these books have never been on a shelf,” she said. “My lifelong dream was to have a personal library.”

Ms. Kambury, 27, went through several years of real estate hell before moving into her light-filled one-bedroom in Harlem. After coming to New York for college from her native Oregon, she lived in a ground-floor apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn. But the construction was shoddy, with numerous leaks, she said, and the landlord was unresponsive, so four years later, in 2014, she moved to East Harlem.

She loved the neighborhood and her apartment, but when she lost her job she had to leave. “I was left with no options,” she said, “so I found the first place I could afford” — a room in Central Harlem, advertised without photos on Craigslist, for $750 a month.

The kitchen consisted of only a mini-fridge; Ms. Kambury eventually added a toaster oven and microwave. There was a shared bathroom down the hall that was infested with cockroaches. She spent most of her time sitting on the bed in her room, a former studio apartment that had been cut in half twice, and now measured 8 by 16 feet.

“It was basically a brick box with no air-conditioning, and because I couldn’t feed myself properly without a kitchen, any extra money went to pay my phone bill and eat takeout.”

Ms. Kambury earns less than $38,000 a year, toward the lower end of the range for low-income individuals in New York City, according to 2018 median income figures. And at the time, she was working three jobs, but still had trouble paying her rent.

Nevertheless, she said, “I’m stubborn. I was determined to find a way to make it work, even if it meant living in a cockroach-infested firetrap.”

In 2016, a friend told her about the housing lottery, so she applied. But it wasn’t until last summer that she heard she had made it to the interview stage for a building on West 114th Street.

That was two weeks after her stepmother, who raised her, had passed away, and several months after her grandfather died. For a devastated Ms. Kambury, it was a welcome respite from a string of bad news.

“When I first got the email I was in such a bad place that it washed over me, and I didn’t even register it,” she recalled. “I told myself to come back in two days and look again. When I did, I couldn’t believe it.”

In September, Ms. Kambury was approved for a one-bedroom apartment. “I could afford the security deposit because my stepmom and grandfather had left me money,” she said. “It was bittersweet that the people who would have reveled in this success most weren’t there to see it.”


CreditYana Paskova for The New York Times

Natia Mosahvili began applying to various housing lotteries in 2008, but for years she heard nothing. Then out of the blue, in 2017, Ms. Mosahvili received a letter forwarded from an old address. It informed her that she had been awarded an interview for a one-bedroom apartment on West 28th Street in Chelsea.

“It had my old income, my old information; I updated all my information, but they told me I was overqualified,” said Ms. Mosahvili, 44, a real estate broker and single mother who is originally from the Republic of Georgia. At the time, she was living with her teenage son in a cramped alcove studio on York Avenue, on the Upper East Side, and was desperate for more space.

Ms. Mosahvili appealed the decision, arguing that much of her income was in commissions that could not be counted upon, and that not only was she a single mother, but she was also caring for her own mother, who suffered from Parkinson’s. She also began applying to new lotteries.

In June 2017, she received an official rejection letter. Two weeks later, she got an email saying that she had been chosen to interview for another building, on East 60th Street. The building was within her income bracket of $51,000 to $60,000, and because of its location, she was eligible for the community inclusion bonus.

“I thought it was a joke,” she said. “I had already been rejected once. I didn’t bother replying. But then I got a letter in the mail with all my updated information, and thought, ‘Maybe this is for real.’”

By the time Ms. Mosahvili realized she should take the notice seriously, she had only a few days left to submit an application. But she had already compiled her financial documents for the one-bedroom in Chelsea, so she was able to apply quickly.

Ms. Mosahvili and her son moved into a roomy two-bedroom in the building that December — not long after receiving a notice that she had been chosen to interview for a third project, on West 52nd Street.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “For 10 years I hear nothing, then I get three in row!”


CreditYana Paskova for The New York Times

Drew Pham and Molly Pearl needed a win. In 2013, Mr. Pham had finished his tour of duty in the Army, after serving in Afghanistan, and was trying to figure out what to do next. Ms. Pearl had been accepted to the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. Neither was earning much money.

The couple, who met as undergraduates at New York University, found an apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, that they could afford if they had a roommate. But the heat, water and electricity in the building were unreliable, with frequent brownouts and no smoke detectors. “It was like 50 degrees half the time inside, and in the summer you couldn’t run the A/C and microwave at the same time without blowing a fuse,” said Mr. Pham, 31.

Then Mr. Pham came down with what they thought was the flu. When it grew worse, Ms. Pearl took him to the emergency room, where he received a devastating diagnosis: He had leukemia.

Mr. Pham, who was 26 at the time, began chemotherapy and received a bone-marrow transplant. It soon became obvious that because he now had a compromised immune system, they couldn’t stay in the apartment.

The couple managed to find an apartment in Ridgewood, Queens, after a prolonged search. But the rent was $2,200 a month, far more than they could afford on an income that consisted of disability pay from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Social Security benefits.

“We had to take it,” said Ms. Pearl, 30, who now works as an adviser to student veterans at Baruch College. “But I was like, ‘I’m going to apply to every single housing lottery that we are eligible for.’”

They quickly got a call about a building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and another about one in Midtown Manhattan. But their income was too low for those apartments, and they were rejected. Eventually they were notified that they had been accepted into a renovated three-unit building on St. Marks Place in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.

“Look, we don’t have a laundry in the building, we don’t have a dishwasher. But everything works,” said Mr. Pham, a writer who is earning an MFA at Brooklyn College. “If it wasn’t for Molly’s salary, we would be below the poverty line.”

While he is grateful for the housing lottery, he said, “For the vast majority of us in the millennial age bracket, there’s no expectation that we will get that basic human right that we all deserve — a place to live.”

Ms. Pearl added: “It is dystopian, if you think about it, that the housing lottery even has to exist.”

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page RE1 of the New York edition with the headline: Better Than the Powerball. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


Published at Fri, 11 Jan 2019 10:00:16 +0000