July 6, 2021

The Long Journey: Northwest Bronx Residents Share Their Housing Connect Experience

by UNHP

In our previous post on NYC Housing Connect, we explored the program on an aggregate level—the structure of De Blasio’s Housing Plan and an overview of Northwest Bronx outcomes. In this next installment, UNHP looks at our work in the Northwest Bronx Resource Center and how our program users have dealt with the lack of options in Housing Connect. To gain user insight on NYC Housing Connect, UNHP surveyed 70 program users about their experience applying for the lottery.

The Northwest Bronx Resource Center has been helping community members apply to NYC Housing Connect lotteries since 2017. Since then we have helped over 1,640 NYC residents, sending over a combined 9,300 applications. From those applications, only 11 program users have successfully won a unit through the lottery, although the true number could be higher if a user wins a unit outside of UNHP records. NYC Housing Connect remains one of the Resource Center’s most popular programs; over one-third of our program users have used Housing Connect with UNHP in the past. Since the modernized Housing Connect 2.0 was launched, UNHP has helped 302 households create new accounts. We hope to work with the others whose accounts are not converted and haven’t been able to apply to the new lotteries.

NYC Housing Connect was an exciting program when it first began. The program centralizes rental information on one website, making it easy for renters and affordable housing groups to know which apartments are available. Previously, information about vacant apartments was hard to come by as one would have to know the right contacts to find affordable housing. However, the city-wide publication of rental information comes with a caveat: the competition intensifies for lower-income units. Now, it is much harder for low-income residents to successfully win an apartment since the number of applicants has skyrocketed over the last few years.

What is the initial application process like?

Interested New Yorkers can apply for a Housing Connect lottery building through the NYC Housing Connect website. NYC Housing Connect, for the most part, is online only. Applicants create a profile with their household and income information which are then used to apply for buildings posted on the website. In essence, applicants would only have to enter their information once (unless updates need to be made) and hit the “apply” button for lotteries they qualify for.

While the online process may seem streamlined, Northwest Bronx residents often have limited technological knowledge and capacity which are barriers to fully utilizing the site. A map published in 2019 by the NYC Comptroller’s office showed that about 35% - 45% of households in the Northwest Bronx did not have access to broadband internet. Since Housing Connect is an online-only portal, many residents rely on Housing Ambassadors like UNHP to submit lottery applications with them.

In our recent survey, program users cited lack of computers, low technology education, and internet problems as reasons why they cannot properly use the Housing Connect website. Even for those that have proper technology access, the information on the site plus the different platforms used (email, phone, website) can be confusing.

In July 2020, the NYC Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) launched Housing Connect 2.0, a modernized version of the old website. The problem with the launch was that the accounts in the old website would not be automatically transferred over to the new site, meaning that everyone with existing accounts had to make new ones. Volunteers working with UNHP cited this transition of accounts as a common point of confusion among our program users. What’s more is that the transition happened during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when all UNHP in-person services had to be done virtually or by phone. Thus outreach to our users has been limited. Of the 1000+ original Housing Connect users that UNHP has served, our staff and volunteers have only created Housing Connect 2.0 accounts for 302 households. We do not know how many households are outside of this pool have been able to create new accounts or even know that they need a new account.

The new website also runs into issues, which further frustrate users. From April 23, 2021 to May 31, 2021, the website could not register new accounts through the cell phone code verification process. For most of our program users this was a huge issue since their technological access is mostly through cell phone use. As a result UNHP could not create accounts for 20+ residents, most of whom could have missed out on affordable lotteries that were expiring soon. Fortunately, the NYC Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) agency extended the deadline for most of these lotteries and has been responsive when technical difficulties arise. We appreciate the agency’s openness to engaging with Housing Ambassadors and willingness to do trainings around the Housing Connect process. However, we know many more applicants decide to apply on their own and struggle to navigate the nuances of the NYC Housing Connect portal.

The program does accept paper applications although this option is more complicated, expensive, and time consuming. Paper applications must be requested in advance from the management company of each lottery building and postmarked before the deadline. If an applicant is interested in multiple buildings, they would have to fill out several applications and pay for the additional costs such as stamps, envelopes, ink, etc. Any errors on the application would be harder to fix and there is a chance for the paper to be lost or mailed to the wrong P.O. box. Thus, creating an online account is still the best way to apply for multiple new lotteries (as will be mentioned later, applying to multiple lotteries is a key precursor to success).

While Housing Ambassadors are there to alleviate some technology gaps in the community, organizational capacity can be limited—especially since Housing Connect is such an in-demand service. The best chance to win a unit involves regularly updating income information and checking for/applying to new lotteries by oneself. With the technological divide in the Northwest Bronx, regularly checking Housing Connect can be a challenging feat. Especially for our senior population, community members that cannot handle the technological process must rely on a third party to participate in the housing lottery.

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A Lack of Qualifying Lotteries

Another barrier to most of our program users is simply finding a lottery they can qualify for. To successfully apply for a lottery on the website, a household must meet two criteria: (1) household size, and (2) the household size’s income requirements. When a property is listed on Housing Connect, a chart is provided showing the different units available for varying household sizes and income brackets. For example, here’s the eligibility chart for a property on 27 East 198th Street. Looking at the “Household Size” column, the chart states that a household of 2 people could potentially qualify for a studio, 1 bedroom, or 2 bedroom apartment. To qualify for the studio, the household would have to make between $46,629 and $124,150. If chosen for one of the three units available, they would pay $1,360 in rent. The required income increases, along with the monthly rent, the bigger the apartment.

Data from: NYC Housing Connect Website
Data from: NYC Housing Connect Website

This property on 198th street is an example of a lottery unit that does not match the real income of families in the Northwest Bronx. Though only a 4-minute walk from the UNHP office and within a zip code where the median income is $19,300 for one person, the building has income requirements way above what a typical community member makes. Not only that, tenants are responsible for electrical costs of many appliances: electric stove, electric heat, and electric hot water. In essence, the already high rent is compounded by expensive utilities. The property thus cannot be considered “affordable” and does not help solve housing insecurity in the community.

Properties like this are common in Housing Connect—where applicants continually see “affordable” housing beyond their reach. Looking at our historical data, a family of 2 with an income of $27,000 would have only qualified for 141 out of 914 units available in the Northwest Bronx (for the same family size) from 2017 to 2019.

The number of available qualifying units are even smaller for larger families. In the example above, only one unit can house more than 3 people and no units can house families with more than 5 people. While larger family sizes tend to have higher average incomes (with potentially more wage earners in the household), the number of constructed units is significantly lower for these households. Among UNHP program users for example, a family of 3 has an average household income of $35,000. With this household size and income, a family would only qualify for 72 units out of 480 potential apartments from 2017 to 2019. This creates steeper competition for larger, lower-income families. Not only that, larger families also face unique challenges when it comes to collecting and submitting paperwork for eligibility appointments (discussed later).

The most units are available for households of 1-2 people. A sharp drop occurs for households with 3+ members. This can disfavor households with bigger families, especially those with children who do not contribute to household income. (Apartments that hold more people have higher minimum income requirements.)
The most units are available for households of 1-2 people. A sharp drop occurs for households with 3+ members. This can disfavor households with bigger families, especially those with children who do not contribute to household income. (Apartments that hold more people have higher minimum income requirements.)

When no extremely low- or very low-income units exist, applicants must stand by and wait for the next affordable lottery to be posted online. This situation, again, underscores the need to check the website consistently—something that a lot of applicants with no broadband access or technological literacy have a harder time doing.

UNHP volunteers who help residents apply to lotteries often find one or two qualifying lotteries for the person they are helping. However, to increase the chances of winning a unit, one needs to apply to as many lotteries as possible. With a lack of units in lower AMI bands, the options for Northwest Bronx incomes are very limited. As a result, our program users can only apply to those one or two lotteries at a time, instead of having a wide array of options in the Housing Connect system. UNHP volunteers remark that while the lottery can be helpful, it has become increasingly difficult to win.

UNHP volunteers and staff usually help Bronx residents with Housing Connect in-person. With the COVID-19 pandemic, UNHP transitioned to helping applicants over the phone (right). Volunteers have remarked that while NYC Housing Connect can be helpful, it is difficult for UNHP program users to win.
UNHP volunteers and staff usually help Bronx residents with Housing Connect in-person. With the COVID-19 pandemic, UNHP transitioned to helping applicants over the phone (right). Volunteers have remarked that while NYC Housing Connect can be helpful, it is difficult for UNHP program users to win.

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Little Success After Applying

What happens when applicants actually apply for a unit they qualify for? For most, nothing really happens. When a lottery closes, applicants generally wait one to three months before being assigned a log number. A log number indicates a household’s position in the pool of applicants and is randomly assigned to ensure fairness. With lower-income units in such high demand, the log numbers can be astronomical. Typical lottery numbers can go as high as 30,000 with some reaching 113,000. In these cases, it is almost guaranteed that the applicant will not be moving forward.

The inability to move forward in the process is the number one source of frustration among surveyed UNHP program users who use Housing Connect. Most do not hear anything back from their initial application and many are left wondering if they did the process accurately or if the application was successfully sent. No application feedback means program users do not know what measures to take to increase their chances of getting selected. The cycle of applying thus continues with no real direction towards success.

The sheer volume of applications for a small number of lower-income units means applicants can wait for years before getting a positive response. In the meantime, waiting applicants must contend with a high rent burden, overcrowding, and substandard apartment conditions. One UNHP program user has submitted over 60 applications over four years, and has had log numbers that vary from 448 to 91,217. However, they have not met any success and is still applying today.

The Housing Connect application process as shown by HPD. Most applicants stay within Step 3 & 4, while a lucky few make it to the final step of signing a lease. Source: nyc.gov
The Housing Connect application process as shown by HPD. Most applicants stay within Step 3 & 4, while a lucky few make it to the final step of signing a lease. Source: nyc.gov

A way to alleviate some of the competition in the housing lottery is the system’s built-in preference for community board residents. Most lotteries will have a 50% preference for residents that live in the same community board as the building being constructed. This affords local residents a better chance at winning a unit—ahead of outside applicants. In fact, UNHP sees the most success with program users who apply to lotteries in our local community boards. But the preference is really only helpful if the income requirements and location match. Residents who do not get new Housing Connect construction in their community board cannot take advantage of the preference. And if a Housing Connect building does get built in the neighborhood but is 80% to 160% of AMI, low-income residents still do not get a chance to qualify. In effect, the waiting game still applies: waiting on an affordable unit with the appropriate income requirements and with the right community board.

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Long Journey to the Finish Line

For the lucky few who manage to receive a low log number, they can be invited to an eligibility appointment. The building developer will request income documents to verify the applicant’s information on the Housing Connect website. If all the documents verify the applicant’s true income, the management company could invite the applicant to tour the unit and eventually sign a lease.

While the process may seem straightforward, the journey to selection is filled with frustrations and disappointments. For one, eligibility appointments with the management company are scheduled after the lottery numbers are assigned, meaning that applicants need to quickly gather a variety of materials. Often applicants only have 10-15 days to gather pdfs of the required documents.

Each management company handles this process a little differently, but applicants generally need to provide proof of their household’s income which can mean contacting employers and various city, state, and federal agencies for documentation. This can be a problem for applicants if they are not able to obtain the necessary forms in time. Moreover, the process is harder for larger households who have to collect paperwork for every single person listed in the application. Before the pandemic, hard copies were needed and all members of the household including children needed to be present for the appointment. For many this meant taking their child out of school.

In the appointment, management companies consider the household income from the previous 3 months. If there have been even small changes to the household’s income since the application was submitted, they can be disqualified. This presents a hurdle for households with hourly income as their earnings are more likely to fluctuate. Households who are denied based on income discrepancies are able to appeal, but they may not know that they have the ability to do so or understand how to.

And even when the income documents do qualify a person for a unit, obtaining the apartment is not guaranteed. This is because management companies typically invite more people to submit documents than there are available units. The reason for this is that most applicants eventually get disqualified based on income or do not follow through with the eligibility appointment. Inviting more applicants widens selection options for the management company, however, the harm befalls in-need applicants who have gone through the long process of applying, only to get denied at the last second. Several UNHP users have had their income check out only to find out that the management company selected someone else from the waiting list. UNHP has seen at least two cases where the applicant was already shown the unit by the management company, but later did not get the place because someone else with a lower lottery number had accepted the apartment. In those cases, UNHP reached out to HPD for help. And while the agency is willing to investigate special cases, the reality is that the applicant just has to try again.

For most UNHP program users who were able to meet with the management company, the outcomes of their appointments were disappointing. Most applicants are told that after collecting and submitting all their paperwork that they are denied because of their income. One user had gone to three different appointments with no success. That means starting the application cycle all over again—waiting for a qualifying lottery, waiting for a low lottery number, and waiting for the chance to move forward. One other user who has been applying to the lottery since 2009 lamented the paradox of the whole process: “Why is the lottery called affordable housing when I keep getting rejected because of my income? Then it isn’t really affordable housing.”

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Other Affordable Housing Options

By now, it is evident that NYC Housing Connect does not fill the need for deep affordability in the Northwest Bronx. So what are the other options for a resident looking for an affordable apartment? Residents often revert to the traditional method of cold-calling management companies to inquire about any vacancies or filling general applications forms online. This method is not often successful since waitlists in affordable apartments can be up to 1-2 years. Trying for a New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) building is not really an option, as those waitlists range from 8 to 10 years.

If finances are keeping a resident from qualifying for an apartment, the Northwest Bronx Resource Center refers them to Ready to Rent, a free one-on-one financial counseling program under the NY Housing Preservation and Development agency (HPD). Tenants experiencing problems with landlord harassment, delayed maintenance, and eviction are referred to the NYC Tenant Support Unit. If a senior or disabled resident is facing a rent increase, the Resource Center can apply for a rent freeze on behalf of the resident.

In short, the best chance for a resident to gain an affordable apartment is to cast a wide net: continually applying to Housing Connect developments, consistently calling management companies, and taking advantage of other housing-related services like Ready to Rent and the NY Rent Freeze. But in the end, the process still takes an incredible amount of luck. This reality is a stark one: affordable and decent housing is a basic need that shouldn’t be based on luck.

Yet, after all the frustrations with applying for the lottery, some UNHP program users still display an incredible amount of optimism. When asked how confident they are about getting an apartment through NYC Housing Connect, 28% of respondents said they were very confident. Most of that confidence is really the deep hope of getting a new, affordable unit that truly matches income. NYC Housing Connect units that are 0%-40% of AMI alleviate the rent burden facing many Northwest Bronx residents today. Decreasing the rent burden unlocks household finances for other crucial needs: food, education, health, and more. This situation underscores the need to scale up the amount of truly affordable units in the system.
For now, however, applicants must continually go through the application process and stay waiting for the chance to win a unit. When one UNHP program user was asked why they keep applying for the lottery, they replied, “Porque tengo mucha fe” (“Because I have a lot of faith”). To win an affordable lottery in the Northwest Bronx, sometimes it is a combination of empowerment and faith.

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