Negotiating “Affordable” Housing

Brooklyn_span_of_the_Brooklyn_BridgeOver the past year, we’ve twice “won” New York City affordable housing lotteries. We learned quite a bit through the process, but pulled out in both cases.

As I am a college professor, one would not expect I would be eligible for any special housing considerations, but we live in Brooklyn, where it is difficult for anyone even in the middle class to find reasonable and affordable long-term housing.

We never did find out much about the units we would be eligible for, other than they are much closer to my work, are elevator buildings (a real advantage as knees grow older) and, in both cases, would be more expensive that our current apartment. We never even got to see an apartment, though we spent hours collecting documents, emailing with city workers and speaking on the phone.

In both instances, the documentation demanded for verification of eligibility was substantial, though somewhat different in each. A lot of the information provided was redundant of that on other documents, but all documents were deemed necessary before the process could move on to an initial “interview.” We even provided notarized statements that we are not students, in the first case, though that is a strange demand of people in their sixties.

The purpose of all the documents is to weed out fraud and attempts to game the system. The result, however, is anything but. It makes paperwork, and not people, the heart of the process.

In the first case, we were asked to provide six months of banking statements for all savings and checking accounts. It so happened that, three months previously, we had been forced to change our accounts due to attempted identity theft. We provided six months of statements but, we found, that wasn’t good enough: We needed six months of statements for all four accounts–even though two had replaced the other two (as any look at the statements made clear). We needed six months for each account even though there weren’t six months of statements for any of the accounts. I explained; it didn’t matter.

So, that was the end of that.

The second time, we were a bit better prepared (and didn’t have an interruption to explain) and had our own questions ready, information we wanted before gathering the information requested or scheduling an interview. One of the most important questions concerned pets: We have a just-under 50-pound basset hound and two cats, none of whom will we leave behind or place elsewhere. When I called the number provided, I was told there was a 10-pound limit on each pet. I had the person repeat that twice, but still wasn’t sure if that could possibly be true. So, I emailed my question, along with others about utilities, the sizes of the units, and what we would likely be eligible for.

The answers on the pets gave me little more confidence. Yes, a basset of that size would be acceptable, but how many pets? No one seemed to know.

I was also told that we were not eligible for a one-bedroom apartment and, in a separate response, that we were only eligible for a one-bedroom apartment. Emails were going back and forth, and I was getting confused–until I realized that a different person was responding each time.

As with the earlier lottery, we got very little information about the actual apartments, not in terms of size or layout. We were told we could not see an apartment until much later in the process. For us, not desperate to move but willing to, this seemed rather peculiar, and a move that put the applicants into a supplicant position. We would take what was offered or nothing at all.

We still decided to schedule the interview, though we were beginning to think that this would be, once more, a waste of our time. The office where it was held was in a nice building in downtown Brooklyn but was itself dowdy and crowded. The paint on the door frame leading in was chipped; the carpets were threadbare and patched, and the worn chairs in the waiting area didn’t match. There were signs printed on letter paper telling us not to proceed beyond “this” point all over the place.

Though the look of the place showed lack of care for the clientele, the people we spoke with were nice. We insisted, before anything else, that the question of pets be answered conclusively.

Yes, most people would simply say they had only one cat, if two and a dog were not allowed, but we weren’t going to do that. We don’t want to risk our home because we had tried to skirt the rules.

The woman we were talking with came back after making a phone call and told us that the number of pets was OK but that their total weight had to be under 50 pounds. That seemed odd, but we stood up and said there was no reason, then, to continue the interview. I said that I was rather annoyed that this question had not been answered before we had spent time collecting documents and had come down for the interview.

The interviewer offered to let us speak with her supervisor. We did. She heard what the interviewer had discovered, looked puzzled, and checked on pets one more time. She found that there was a limit of two, neither more that 50 pounds. We thanked her and left.

We didn’t feel too badly. Any apartment we were eligible for, we suspected, would be quite a bit smaller than where we are now and, as we already knew, would be more expensive. What bothered us was how entirely one-sided the process is, and how it is skewed toward people willing to cheat and lie. The blizzard of documents demanded, for example, can easily be concocted by someone not constrained by the niceties of honesty–more easily than by someone trying to be completely transparent and forthright.

There are other oddities. One familiar with the labyrinthine system for affordable housing will also know that, for example, “2” does not always mean “2” in the lists of people, apartments and rents. That is, a married couple is only eligible for a one-bedroom apartment while a mother and daughter can get a two–though, on the sheet describing apartments, occupants and rents, there is no distinction between these two duos. We were expected to have, somehow, known that.

Through these experiences, we discovered that, though there are possibilities for people like us, from New York’s middle class, in this system, they aren’t “really” there for us. Few in positions like ours are going to bother to go through a long process just to get to see an apartment they would probably reject–only those much lower on the economic scale would, people who have to take anything, if the price is right. They are the only ones who are going to benefit from this program. There’s not even a savings for most of us who can afford market rents, something I still find rather strange. Yes, there would be convenience, but we were never offered a chance to see what the trade-offs might be–and trade-offs there would be.

So, why do they even offer this program to the somewhat higher (really middle) income brackets?

There’s a real need for affordable housing in New York City and not just for the poor. I suspect the city is trying to add the rest of us who are not rich into its system of possibilities, but it is doing the job so poorly that we are still effectively kept out.

Certainly if we attempt to be open and honest.