Wednesday, February 15, 2017

City officials hope to reduce uncertainty for those in affordable housing lotteries, predict only partial solutions

As I recently reported, applicants for affordable housing face anxiety and uncertainty as they go through the lottery process, unsure how long it will take, even putting job or relocation decisions on hold as they await word.

And there's no solution just yet. City officials have produced a report, Improving Access to Affordable Housing Opportunities, which focuses on issues like financial preparedness and education about the lottery process, not the uncertainty faced by applicants.

The report does note, as I pointed out, that applicants expressed confusion regarding the wait:
The overall leasing process can be lengthy, in some instances taking more than a year. Updates about the status of one’s application are not always available, and applicants expressed worry that they were somehow forgotten or were missing emails, voicemails, and/or letters.
A separate document, After You Apply for Affordable Housing, focuses on ensuring that applicants prepare the proper information for their files to be evaluated, but leaves a general explanation about timing: "Interviews are usually scheduled from two to ten months after the application deadline."

So people wonder. As one 535 Carlton lottery applicant recently wrote on a forum for applicants, "I'm thinking about writing to our Mayor, about creating a portal with time frames, updates and status for applicants. This process is too nerve racking and should be a little more transparent once given an interview."

A 461 Dean applicant wrote, "The fact that they don't offer status updates is so lame. The should have a website that informs you of your status. Maybe do everything electronically.... I've been waiting for 5mths its been a nightmare. To be honest, I learned more from people on the forums than I did from Mhny [Mutual Housing Association of New York]."

NYC HDC "working to address" many concerns (but not all)

I queried the New York City Housing Development Corporation (NYC HDC) and got a response from Stephanie Mavronicolas, Director, External Affairs:
We are very sympathetic to the anxiety people feel, and are working to address many of the concerns that applicants have expressed in an upgrade of the Housing Connect system. While the changes will provide more information about where applicants are in the process, it is almost impossible to give an accurate status of where someone is in the process because there are so many factors that affect eligibility. We continue to work to standardize and make the process as transparent as possible, and coordinate closely with the marketing agencies to ensure that applicants are notified of their status in as timely a manner as possible.
(Emphasis added)

OK, it may be impossible to give individuals a specific update. But Mavronicolas's message suggests that it might be possible to explain the progress in filling available units in a building.

A complex process, and a developer's pushback

The challenge involves the interplay of city agencies--not just NYC HDC but in certain cases New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development--with developers like Greenland Forest City Partners or nonprofit partners like Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY).

MHANY, formerly New York ACORN's housing arm, is processing the 84,000 applications for 461 Dean (181 units), the 95,000 applications for 535 Carlton (298 units), and the applications for 38 Sixth (303 units), for which the lottery is in process. (461 Dean is not being built/leased by the joint venture but by Forest City Ratner alone.)

I doubt nonprofits like MHANY have the funding/staff to adequately keep all informed; shouldn't that be the responsibility of the city?

At the recent bimonthly Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Quality of Life meeting, I queried a representative for the developer. Noting that I'd read some forums in which lottery applicants for 461 Dean expressed significant anxiety and uncertainty, I asked, "Do you have a sense of how long that move-in--at least for the affordable units--is expected to take?"

"No. But if you do the math,... very single lease has to be approved by the government," responded Forest City Ratner executive Ashley Cotton, "and then it turns into a lease, and then it turns into a move-in. Move-ins are based on people's schedules... So, of course no, I can't tell you directly. I get that you read a chat room, where people are annoyed with the process, by the way, that's perfectly reasonable. Everyone loves housing, especially--there's a high demand for affordable housing. I feel impatient too. We are working as fast as possible. We currently have 800 units [actually, about 782] of affordable housing, they’re at different levels of move-in, completion, and construction. So, the team on this, I have full confidence in."

That answer might have been more satisfying had reps from MHANY or NYC HDC contributed.

I tried to follow up: "To clarify, what people have reported, and it's all second-hand, obviously, is some people say it's all going to be done in four months, and some people say they've been told eight to ten months. I'm trying to get a little clarity on that. What's the ballpark figure?"

"I don't know who's saying eight months, and who's saying four. I'm not going to guess at what they're hearing," Cotton responded. "But you could imagine, 800 units... we have a great team working on this. And a really great team on the government side, that has to approve every single applicant. So it's just a machine, where like, we put it in and it comes out... "

Comments from the applicants: timing

Keeping watch on the forums, I've noticed general frustration with the process, and both frustration and praise expressed toward representatives of MHANY and NYC HDC.

One wrote, "It took me 5 months to hear back from them to sign HDC paperwork so you guys shouldn't get discouraged yet."

One applicant reported being told "that its normal to be waiting this long because the process takes anywhere between 2-10 months. Its been 4 mths since I interviewed  Im so anxious."

Comments from the applicants: learning more

Another wrote that a phone call to HDC led to a phone call from MHANY saying the application was approved.

One reported that going "incessantly" to the [presumably MHANY] office was more effective than emails or phone calls, which prompted a response that such actions were both difficult for applicants and also insufferable for those working to process all the applications.

Comments from the applicants: what's the process

Another reported filing a complaint with HDC about "MHANY's inability to communicate effectively, calculate income correctly, etc etc."

Another wrote, "I mean I know people whom have moved into affordable housing apartments and their process was nothing like this.

Another described the process:
Your first "interview" is an intake interview. Someone sits with you and goes through a checklist to make sure you have brought all the necessary paperwork. They may inspect some of your paperwork in front of you but usually it's just a preliminary interview to collect your information.
Then, depending on your log #, the management company starts reviewing applicants and all of their paperwork and deems whether or not you qualify for the next step. This step is where many people get weeded out for various reasons, and also when rejection letters get sent out. HDC DOES NOT SEND OUT REJECTION LETTERS - only the management company does.
If you make it through the management company first round, you will then be contacted to come in and either clarify certain aspects of your paperwork and/or sign further paperwork which allows them to submit your paperwork to HDC. This is what happened with me last week.
Once your papers are sent to HDC, the average response time is 1-3 weeks, however that can take much longer. Once your paperwork is at HDC it is out of your hands and all you can do is wait. When HDC decides to review your paperwork they can ask for further clarifications or they can deny or approve you.
If approved from HDC you are basically good to go, as long as there is an apartment available for you. The management company will call or email you to let you know whether or not you've been approved and the next contact will be from the building management in order setup an appointment to come in and view an apartment and sign a lease.
The confusing part for me and which you might also be surprised by was being asked to view an apartment before my paperwork has been approved or denied by HDC. That part is unusual. My only guess is that the building is behind schedule and they are looking to fill the first six floors ASAP in order to start collecting some rent. But like I said previously, the building does not look close to being ready for occupancy and I'm sure the majority of move-ins wont take place until at least a few months from now.
At least, a community of sorts

Given the long odds applicants face, most won't win the lottery.

One summed up the frustration, at least for the large majority who didn't win: "The end of this Summer, we need to have a loser log party for all of us who went through this grueling crap and wound up with nothing."

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