Nine years into an $8.5 billion plan to build or preserve 165,000 subsidized apartments, New York City’s affordable housing program has drawn some scandalous headlines amid allegations of graft and favoritism.
City Council Member Erik Martin Dilan took a subsidized apartment built by a campaign donor, despite exceeding the mandated income level by nearly $50,000, The Daily News reported in March. In October, an assistant commissioner at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development was arrested along with six developers, charged with taking bribes for contracts to build subsidized housing.
But beyond the headlines, there are signs of daily inequities that are harder to quantify – ones built into the city’s murky systems for allocating subsidized housing.
Even as officials tout the success of the Bloomberg Administration’s New Housing Marketplace Plan, the complexity of the application process effectively locks out many poor and middle-income New Yorkers seeking the subsidized units built under the plan – while it benefits others.
The lack of transparency in the city’s system for allocating available units makes timely information about new subsidized housing a valuable currency. And among the hundreds of thousands seeking apartments that they can afford in New York City, people with connections to those who provide this information – community groups, public officials and developers – have a distinct advantage.
A Communication Gap
With prime locations and, in some cases, access to luxury amenities such as doormen and gyms, many of the subsidized apartments built in recent years across the city are a far cry from the crime-ridden housing projects that used to be the grim face of subsidized housing.
But in interviews with New Yorkers who found their way to these subsidized apartments, many said that they only heard about the available units through luck or word-of-mouth – and not through the city’s website or mandated developer’s advertisements.
Mohammad Rahman, 52, applied to 20 North Fifth, the 101-unit affordable component of the Northside Piers development in Williamsburg, on the advice of a former landlord. Christyn Jackson, 30, learned of the 34-unit Gates Cooperative in Bedford-Stuyvesant from a friend who works for a labor union. And Helen Pagano said it was a fellow parishioner’s kindness that brought her to the Edge Community Apartments, the affordable part of the Edge high-rise development in Williamsburg.
“A good friend of mine, a Spanish lady from the church, had given me the application,” Pagano said.
While word-of-mouth pays off for some apartment-seekers, it leaves others out in the cold. In Brooklyn, residents and local elected officials complained they did not hear of the 73 subsidized rental units at DKLB BKLYN (formerly known as 80 DeKalb) – a building with an “80/20″ ratio of market-rate rentals to designated “affordable” rentals that opened in December of 2009 – until the below-market-rate units were all full.
Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries said his office had no advance notice that affordable units were to be available in the development, which received $109.5 million in tax-exempt government bonds and $27.5 million in taxable bonds.
“The state did not do a good job, in my view, of marketing the project to the broader community,” said Jeffries, who said his office fielded dozens of complaints from residents. “The process, from beginning to end, lacked transparency. We were distraught that neither the state or developer provided our office with notice that there was an affordable housing component, made possible by significant state assistance.”
Like many mixed-income buildings, the developer of DKLB BKLYN, Forest City Ratner, hired separate firms to promote and coordinate the subsidized and market-rate units, said Danny Charles, a public relations manager at Citi Habitats, which handled the market-rate units. The 292 market-rate units at DKLB BKLYN, which initially rented at $1,955 for a studio and $3,400 for a two bedroom in early 2009, have increased to $2,185 and $4,195, respectively.
The Phipps Houses Group, a not-for-profit developer of affordable housing that coordinated rental of the building’s subsidized units, did its best to get the word out about the 73 subsidized units, said Josephine Perrella, the organization’s senior vice president and general manager. She was not able to provide the prices for the subsidized units, but they were listed at $489 to $803 for people with incomes between $17,259 and $38,400, according to one city blog.
Phipps Houses received 4,760 applications for the 73 subsidized slots, Perrella said, and the apartments were advertised in newspapers, listed on the city’s website, and advertised with signs on the building itself. Perrella suggested that politicians should have been aware of the project, which required approvals from community and city boards. The developers followed city and state protocols, she said, and fulfilled a requirement that there be eligible local applicants for 50 percent — in this case at least 37 — of the building’s 73 subsidized apartments.
“We did, in consultation with the agencies, what needed to be done,” she said. “The owner has done a yeoman’s job in getting that information out.”
Relying on ’18th Century Technology’
To publicize the below-market-rate units developed by the Pratt Area Community Council, the Brooklyn non-profit sends out email blasts to those on its mailing list and posts open houses in Facebook and Twitter. Still, few in the neighborhood knew about the subsidized units at the Gates Cooperative in Bedford-Stuyvesant, said Margaret Stuart, who moved into a two-bedroom there earlier this year after a friend forwarded her the listing from a PACC mailing.
“I lived five or six blocks from the building, and I never knew about it,” the 57-year-old special education teacher said. “I was amazed!… I would think they would do flyers in the neighborhood and that sort of thing. They’re not doing that.”
The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development does not mandate flyers, but it does require developers to advertise in at least three newspapers: one citywide daily with a circulation of at least 200,000; one “ethnic-based” newspaper with a circulation of at least 10,000; and one “local” newspaper. The ads must run for a minimum of three days, at least 60 days prior to the application deadline.
Beyond these ground rules, some key details are not spelled out, including ad size. The agency does not require developers to promote their buildings beyond newspaper advertising.
Applicants must obtain or download applications, and then mail them to the developers. It’s an issue that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn acknowledged in her February State of the City address.
“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,” Quinn said. “In a 21st-Century world – where you can do everything online – we still make people apply for housing using 18th-Century technology,”
The process is further muddled by the “housing lottery” system. The lottery, where applicants to a particular building are chosen randomly to advance through the process, is designed to prevent favoritism and ensure that apartments are fairly distributed. When developments are unable to fill units with qualified candidates before the specified date, however, the term “lottery” becomes a misnomer. Applications that come in after the deadline are addressed on a first-come, first-served basis.
Even as some call for changes to the system, community organizations, whose role in the process is to help create and find affordable units for those they serve, may resist major modifications. The current system, with its reliance on word-of-mouth networking, is effective in one sense: It allows local nonprofits to get the information out to their own constituents, members of ethnic or neighborhood communities.
“I don’t know that there’s a real desire to open the process citywide and make it as accessible as possible,” said Filip Stabrowski, an organizer at North Brooklyn Development Corporation. “In the affordable housing game, information is the form of currency.”
Though the city requires only that developers advertise in newspapers, some developers and community organizations also use social media, email lists, flyers, community meetings and open houses – as well as literal word-of-mouth – to alert their communities about the available units.
These methods may only reach people with connections to the developers or community organizations involved. While some say this is appropriate – that the role of those groups is to represent their constituents and stabilize neighborhoods by finding affordable homes for longtime residents – others say the system pits ethnic or community groups against one another.
Schaefer Landing, a subsidized building that went up in Williamsburg in 2005, became the center of a fair-housing controversy when the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, a non-profit that serves the area’s growing Hasidic population, was selected to oversee the application process. The decision drew a barrage of criticism from fair-housing advocates and organizations representing the area’s Latino community. In a ruling last year on allegations that another Williamsburg development, Broadway Triangle, was designed to favor Hasidic families, state Supreme Court Judge Emily Goodman said Schaefer Landing is “not a shining example” of diversity, “since residents at Schaeffer Landing are 42 percent white, while the citywide application pool, at least for NYCHA housing, is overwhelmingly non-white.”
Howard Husock, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank The Manhattan Institute, said the influence of community groups on local developments is to be expected, but the system may not be the best way to allocate taxpayer-funded subsidies.
“Property owners want discretion as to how they build communities,” he said. “Frankly, that’s how the city was built – communities building and having bonds.” But, Hussock said, “There’s tension between that and the rights that come with federal subsidies or state subsidies.”
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio acknowledged earlier this year that the subsidized housing application and selection system may be flawed.
“It’s one of these classic New York City things that goes shockingly unmonitored,” de Blasio said during an appearance at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He added that much of the focus and effort is put on the front-end negotiation to fund and construct a subsidized building.
“[Government agencies] put immense, immense energy into striking the deal,” said de Blasio, “and then because everybody’s overloaded in the public sector, it’s a little debatable how much checking and balancing happens thereafter to make sure its done right.”
An Phung and Susan Rohwer contributed to this report.
(Editor’s note: Portions of this story were modified to add clarity upon receipt of additional information from HPD.)
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