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On the affordable housing lottery analysis: 1M in Housing Connect; an advocate's concern

I'll be on WBAI/99.5 this morning at around 7:30 a.m. to talk about my housing lottery article.

My City Limits article, headlined The Real Math of An Affordable Housing Lottery: Huge Disconnect Between Need and Allotment, was spurred by two things: the common-sense suspicion that many more lower-income people apply for housing lotteries and my increasing frustration with the use of catch-all statistics by the press and others.

(After all, the developers of Hunters Point South had to advertise and assemble a street team to recruit middle-income households.)

So I got the data and drilled down. As I wrote, such statistics camouflage how low-income applicants face crushing odds compared to middle-income ones:
Exactly 92,743 households (not quite 95,000) entered the lottery for the "100% affordable" 535 Carlton tower, city data show. But only 2,203, according to City Limits' analysis, were eligible for 148 middle-income apartments, such as one-bedrooms renting for $2,680 monthly and two-bedrooms at $3,223, affordable to those earning six figures.
Back in December 2015, I wrote on Twitter: "Prediction: 1st #AtlanticYards @pacificparkbk "100% affordable" towers will get 10Ks of applicants. Most willB4 low-income units."

That was right, I finally determined after analyzing the massive spreadsheet with the list of applicants. And, I learned, no one else--advocate, researcher, journalist--had ever done that analysis.

An astounding number

One astounding statistic I learned: there are more than 1 million people in the Housing Connect system, more than three times the 290,000 figure in January 2015.

Once people have their profile fully filled out--surely some, like me, just logged on to check out the system--they can then easily apply to multiple lotteries. That ensures a large number of entrants to any lottery that includes low-income units.

In other words, while there were more than 170,000 applications for 535 Carlton and 50% affordable 461 Dean, it's likely many were the same.

City framing

It's understandable that city officials want to make the case for below-market but not cheap housing. They have arguments, though not the strongest ones.

When NY1 "Inside City Hall" anchor Errol Louis in July 2014 suggested it was "a bit of a shock" to allot so many units to better-off households, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen responded, "I think it's shocking that the city has gotten so expensive... that people who make $100,000 a year are now considered really in the sweet spot for needing affordable housing."

Maybe some need it, but the lottery results suggest otherwise.

In a Twitter exchange last December, mayoral spokesman Wiley Norvell contended that 100% affordable towers like 535 Carlton represented a step up from 50% affordable 461 Dean (aka B2). "That same 50% in B2 is straight market rate," Norvell wrote. "We tugged market to middle, mid to mod and mod to low."

That wasn't quite so, given that, in the universe of Atlantic Yards affordable housing, the low-income units should have meant 40%, not 30% of the total.

More importantly, Norvell didn't acknowledge that 535 Carlton and the similar 38 Sixth wouldn't fully replace 50/30/20 towers but instead enable future 100% market towers. In other words, "affordable" units have been front=loaded, but they're not that affordable.

It should be noted that only about 11% of de Blasio's affordable housing plan is supposed to go to middle-income households, so a 100% affordable building with 65% middle-income units is unusual. That said, the lottery for 461 Dean, which has a more varied allotment of units, was nearly as skewed toward lower-income households.

Concern from an advocate

One interesting thing that surfaced in my article was the criticism from Ismene Speliotis, Executive Director of Mutual Housing Association of NY (MHANY) Management, which manages the affordable housing process for Pacific Park.

“Not to say that people in those higher bands aren’t looking for apartments,” said Speliotis, “[but] there’s a disconnect between the population’s need and the apartment distribution.” She spoke with Jarrett Murphy, editor of City Limits, who contributed to my article.

Speliotis, formerly of ACORN's housing arm, is a longtime advocate for affordable housing, and has publicly testified in favor of moving Atlantic Yards ahead and increasing affordability. Unlike some, she did not publicly cheer the "100% affordable housing" that's mostly aimed at middle-income households. But it sounds like she'd like more of a focus on low-income units, in both this project and in general.

Speliotis knows that Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park is behind on its low-income affordable housing obligations, and she said the developer is well aware of the issue. (Developer Greenland Forest City Partners wouldn't respond to queries.)

What does that mean down the road? More subsidies for lower-income units? More political pressure? Or promises averted?

The lack of the promised Independent Compliance Monitor--required under the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement but never hired--means a lack of publicly accessible oversight.

We do know that the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park market-rate housing is significantly delayed, with developer Forest City Ratner--presumably in concert with joint venture partner/overseer Greenland USA--citing uncertainty about the 421-a tax break, increased construction costs, and the glut of market-rate units in and around Downtown Brooklyn.

The large majority of below-market units are expected to come in large buildings over the Vanderbilt Yard, for which a deck is still being constructed.
My October 2016 annotation of an August 2014 tentative schedule
Middle-income rejections

From the article:
Reflecting on the lottery process, Speliotis said it was “really tough” to lease middle-income units, because lottery winners—some of whom may pay below 30 percent of their income right now—have more options than their lower-income counterparts. Some are wary of disclosing their financial information or prefer apartments larger than those produced under new city design guidelines for subsidized buildings.
Along with that, only 360 households initially qualified for the 44 two-bedroom apartments renting at $3,223 a month. Those are pretty good chances, and even more for the 111 applicants who could take advantage of the community preference, which designates half of 535 Carlton’s units are designated for residents from nearby Community Districts.

Middle-income households, even if they find tempting a new apartment near transit, have other options. Consider this quote from a forum for applicants to the 461 Dean housing lottery, where the middle-income units were less expensive, with two-bedrooms at $2,400 and $3,012:
after a lot of thinking between my husband and myself we have decided to turn down the 461 dean apt. We have to do what is best for our family. And the 2 bedroom we were offered is not it. It is way too small for a family to live and grow. In the same price range, granted in a less "desireable" neighborhood we can find something 2 times the size. Something we can grow in, not these tiny apartments. I may sound ungrateful since lottery apts are so hard to get but its just not for us.
Here's a quote from a forum for applicants to the 38 Sixth housing lottery:
I am actually eligible for studios in both the 145% [$1,713/month] and 165% [$2,121/month] tiers but would definitely have to turn down an offer in the 165% tier because that is unaffordable for me and I would have to think very hard if I want to pay the $1713 in the 145% tier. Plus I am currently in the running for 1 of 2 one bedrooms in Harlem that are $150+ less in rent through another lottery. So I don't know why I feel so in limbo about this one, lol.

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