November 23, 2023

UNHP Hosts Bronx Housing Connect Roundtable Meeting (bilingüe)


Este articulo se traduce al español aquí. Haga clic en este enlace para leerlo en su idioma.

On November 13th, UNHP convened a Housing Connect Roundtable Meeting with Council Member and Housing Chair Pierina Sanchez. Housing Connect is the NYC online affordable housing lottery, and it would be an understatement to say that there has been much frustration around the program. The event brought together Bronx housing applicants who have sought apartments for several years, experienced mission-driven and aligned affordable housing developers, and nonprofit direct service providers who have been assisting Housing Connect applicants. This conversation provided space for all participants to share their experiences with the online platform and to convert their frustration into action and programmatic improvements with our neighborhood ally and representative, Pierina Sanchez.

The Bronx Affordable Housing Opportunities Right Away (Bronx AHORA) group consists of frustrated housing seekers in the community. The feedback that we received to form this group – from 70 surveyed program users who have been applying for many years – is that people need extra guidance to move through the Housing Connect process. The majority of Bronx housing seekers want to live in the Bronx, stay in the Bronx, and help their families and neighbors find affordable housing. Our Housing Disconnect blog post outlines some of the original feedback from members and our work to come together.  During the roundtable, Bronx AHORA speakers shared their challenges with the tech demands of the Housing Connect platform, the lack of clear communication, and the ongoing insult of properties labeled as affordable that are clearly not affordable to Bronx residents.

Meeting attendees discussed the fundamental disconnect between Bronx median incomes and the area median incomes (AMI) which are used to determine affordability. The average income of UNHP program users is $21,000; the AMI for the area is now $38,000. Even units marketed as deeply affordable are not affordable for the community members we work with. Bronx AHORA member Dawn shared her frustrations with those present: “The income [requirement on Housing Connect] is a problem. I earn $47,000 a year with two jobs. I’m 65 years old, and I’m tired. I’m looking for a place to live where I can rest and live out my final years. The ads I see I can’t afford, so I don’t even bother applying. This is NOT affordable housing.” Maria another Bronx Ahora member who has been applying for 7 years to Housing Connect also chimed in about the affordability levels of new units ” I am a senior citizen, but the income requirements are way too high for me to even be able to apply.”

Another Bronx AHORA member named Milagros has encountered similar obstacles and hopes that government representatives can deliver solutions. She said, “So many of the ads I see require incomes that are too high… I wish the institutions would help us. We are the people. We are people whose hours of work do not earn us a high enough wage, and we cannot afford the affordable housing available.”

The tech demands of the Housing Connect platform can also discourage or overwhelm applicants. People who only have smartphones have an even more difficult time uploading and submitting documents to the portal. UNHP has worked with applicants who struggle to forward necessary emails during the assistance process, and staff have to read through messages from Housing Connect multiple times to make the responses clear to applicants. Bronx AHORA member Maria J. shared her experience with the process: “I was selected for an apartment in 2017, but I missed the communications due to difficulty with technology. I did not see the email. I would like to see the communications offered in multiple ways, not just by email. This is a disadvantage for people who have challenges with technology. Now I check my email every day, but it is difficult to find the messages which are the most important – there are too many.”

The challenges Maria J. encountered in communications from Housing Connect about her applications are mirrored in other user experiences. Bronx AHORA member Sonia explained, “In this process, I don’t have anyone to speak to. I searched the emails for the name or phone number [of someone I can] speak with, but there was nothing, so I just left it. I didn’t know who to speak with to find out what was needed from me, and it cost me the opportunity. I want to receive a text message that says, ‘Call this person for more information or to learn what you need to do next.’ I can go to Staples to upload documents, but I need to understand what is needed from me.” Ultimately, housing developers receive a huge number of incomplete applications due to the lack of communication or clarity, which makes their work more difficult and frustrating.

When an applicant is finally invited to a selection interview, they have to bring birth certificates, tax returns, etc. for each member of the household. The deadline to submit the paperwork within 10 days is not realistic and greatly discourages applicants since they feel that they must accomplish the impossible just to be considered. Applicants have to take days off just to gather the paperwork, which affects their income and makes the process even less affordable. This long process is anxiety-inducing and confusing for housing seekers.

The lottery process leads to many frustrations for building operators as well as applicants. The four affordable housing developers that attended the Roundtable Meeting oversee hundreds of regulated affordable Bronx multifamily buildings. These developers understand that Housing Connect is meant to create a fair process for everyone, but it has become slow and convoluted. Jacob Udell of UNHP summarized the shared frustrations: “We ask: who is this fair for? Who is this working for? Our systems are so obsessed with catching the one person who is not reporting their income correctly, that everyone is made to suffer as a result.”

As applicants are required to submit and re-submit financial documents, the process lengthens, negatively impacting both applicants and building operators. The lease-up manager from Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation shared: “It takes two weeks for applicants to submit documents, they then have two weeks to appeal. We then must interview applicants and have them sign documents, and it may take them a long time to be able to take off a day for the meeting. They may bring everything they need to the appointment, but the majority of the time that’s not the case, which adds further to the timeline.”

Inefficiencies in the Housing Connect process often result in affordable units sitting vacant for a long time. Re-rental and new development vacancies are both challenging for affordable housing developers. There are lots of safe, clean, and affordable re-rentals that are mandated to be available through Housing Connect and sit empty due to the lengthy process. Applicants also do not understand what re-rentals are and may be disinterested in something they have misconceptions about. Brendan Mitchell from UNHP explained: “UNHP has been helping people apply to Housing Connect for many years, and we also got insights into what it is like to fill re-rental units through managing a project in the Bronx. We closed with 10 vacancies and later had 13, and we had to use Housing Connect to fill these units. We found that applicants did not want to live in our fifth-floor walk-ups, they wanted to live in high-rise buildings with elevators.” The units ultimately sat empty for 2 years, and as a result, UNHP lost over $100,000 in rental income. “Finally, after we received special permission to waive the Housing Connect process, we were able to immediately fill the vacancies with local people from the neighborhood who were eager to move into the units.”

The slow process is keeping preservation deals from happening. Good actors want to acquire properties but decide not to because of how long it will take to rent up units on Housing Connect. Anivelca, leasing agent from Lemle & Wolff Property Management explained the issue: “We need to promote preservation, but anyone who wants to renovate a building through a city program must go through Housing Connect, which is a huge deterrent. There are limited options currently for people who want to responsibly renovate and lease buildings to benefit the community. Landlords must consider 4.5 years of construction and 1.5 years to lease up. That’s 6 years before they can start making returns on their investment. Small mission-driven landlords are therefore under pressure to sell to make ends meet, and often have to sell to large developers who don’t center community interests in their mission and operations.”

After listening to the diverse voices and concerns of all parties, Council Member Sanchez thanked all in attendance – especially “the residents, mis vecinos, who have hopes and dreams and every single right to want to be able to live in a better place and to make a case for fighting this fight. We are fighting it together.” She highlighted some of the steps she is already making as the Housing Chair of the City Council to address some of the affordable housing issues mentioned during the meeting. “Right now we have legislation that is being written to try to force the administration not only to create housing at the 30-40% AMI range, but also for the people with the lowest income (<20% AMI) in New York. We know what we need. We need to house our people. We need to house people who are earning what they are earning… We need to provide housing for people where they are living.”

Council Member Sanchez also urged those in attendance to keep the conversation going and outline some concrete steps to pursue. She asked, “For each issue, what are our actionable solutions and next steps? Let’s figure this out concretely so that we can get the ball rolling on big and small changes… Administrative issues – like technological challenges – will be the easiest to address. Other changes may require legislation or funding. The big picture mission is to make affordable housing actually affordable for our communities.” The meeting ended with a commitment to follow-up to further clarify the issues raised and a plan to address them.

Click on these links for the meeting presentation and more information about Bronx AHORA in their own words and our work with Bronx Building Operators.