Affordable Housing ‘Maze’ Confronts Applicants

The Following story was published in City Limits Magazine. It was reported and written by Patrick Clark, Matt Draper, and Eliza Ronalds-Hannon.


The city is in the midst of an historic plan to build affordable housing. But people who want to live in those low-income units face enormous difficulty finding and applying for government-subsidized apartments.

To find subsidized housing for a largely Polish clientele, the North Brooklyn Development Corporation’s office secretary scours her newspaper daily for three-inch advertisements announcing new, “affordable” housing developments.

Another employee clips ads from the free daily distributed at his subway stop. A tenant organizer sometimes consults online listings published by city and state housing agencies, but staffers have found those entries often are outdated and incomplete.

“You have to be constantly looking for available units, but we just don’t have the time or resources,” said Filip Stabrowski, a tenant organizer at the Greenpoint nonprofit. “A lot of the time, it winds up coming down to word of mouth.”

In the 21st Century, word of mouth is not how New Yorkers typically meet basic needs. The city has modernized many of its functions, building online systems for reporting potholes, appealing parking tickets and tracking the performance of police precincts and local schools. But even as the city undertakes a major expansion of its subsidized housing stock, the process of finding and applying for those apartments has become so haphazard and mysterious that many New Yorkers don’t even know where to start. Others are defeated by the complexity of the system.

For more multimedia reports on New York City’s subsidized housing maze – including the story of how the application process locks out some New Yorkers while benefiting others – go to the NYCity News Service.

“It’s like a maze,” said Laura Napier, a 35-year-old artist who lives in the South Bronx and has tried to use the city’s online resources to find subsidized housing. “You get to the main page and then you can go off in different directions. … Often you call and the number is wrong, like you’ll call and it will be a fax machine. It just became this ridiculous thing.”

A common challenge

Finding an apartment can be a nightmare for any New Yorker, but the challenge is especially frustrating for those who depend on government-subsidized housing for shelter. Like many other cities across the country, New York got out of the business of building housing projects, and instead keeps some apartments “affordable” — or at least below market rate — by subsidizing developments built by private companies and community organizations. In the new landscape, subsidized apartments are scattered throughout the city — 20 units in one building, 300 units in another.

Urban planners extol the benefit of “mixed-income” communities. But for those seeking subsidized units, the dispersed system can be even more frustrating than applying for housing through the New York City Housing Authority, which maintains wait-lists for all applicants to the developments it oversees. Since the city now relies on a dizzying array of methods and agencies to subsidize housing, no such centralized wait-list exists for the expanding number of subsidized units.

Even if an individual agency’s listings are complete, the lack of a comprehensive resource that compiles all available units forces apartment hunters to surf from website to website, download and complete reams of applications, and approach each building individually to apply. Many end up going through the onerous application process, only to find out that they are ineligible for the unit.

In a city where the supply of subsidized housing will never meet the demand, the human cost of the system’s confusion is hard to measure. There are indications, however, that some subsidized units across New York City have sat empty despite offering some of the best deals in town.


About Eliza Ronalds-Hannon