Affordable Housing: Apply Online!

About 4,000 affordable apartments financed by New York City become available each fiscal year, and about 160,000 people enter lotteries to live in them. These apartments are typically owned by private developers – usually community groups or development sponsors – and to enter these lotteries, New Yorkers who meet the low income requirement have to mail a paper application to each developer of each building they are interested in applying for.

Like many public welfare programs, applying for affordable housing in New York City can feel like something out of the Dark Ages. In an era where the internet and computers streamline nearly everything, Food Stamp records, for example, are still hand written and kept in file folders at local offices. It would be kind of endearing, in an obsolete way, if it didn’t make so many peoples’ lives so difficult.

Starting this morning, though, applicants seeking to rent or buy an apartment in Westwind Houses in East Harlem or Richmond Place in Queens will be able to create user profiles and submit applications online, at By the Fall, the program will have expanded to include all new affordable housing development projects financed by NYC.  Applicants will be able to create an online profile and submit it to as many site specific lotteries they wish, simply with the click of the button.

Of course, this is a vast improvement over the previous system. City Council speaker Christine C. Quinn told the New York Times,

“It will open up a system to more New Yorkers, and create the potential for more New Yorkers to access housing out there in the five boroughs,” she said. “They say you have to be in it to win it, and we’re trying to create the chance for more New Yorkers to be ‘in it’.”

However much of an improvement this change is, it is also important to be mindful of growing issues of inequity in internet access. First, the internet is not nearly as ubiquitous as we might think. According to a New York Times article, “The New Digital Divide,” the United States (the country that invented the Internet) ranks 12th in the world among developed nations for wired internet access at home. Though 93% of households making over $100,000 access the internet at home, 40% of those making below $25,000 a year do. (And who do you think is applying for affordable housing?) In African American and Hispanic households, 55% and 57% of families have wired internet at home. Though paper lotteries will still be available for those without access, it remains to be seen how these will be integrated into the broader, online system.

Perhaps more importantly, this change reminds us of just how far we have left to go. If it does what it hopes to do, and I think, digital divide aside, it will, more people will be encouraged to apply for affordable housing.  This means that even more than 160,000 people will be applying for just 4,000 spots each fiscal year. It makes the fact that the promised affordable housing development at Atlantic Yards and Willets Point has been pushed back indefinitely even more shameful. The ongoing cycle of overleveraging and foreclosure in rent regulated multifamily housing presents an additional threat to the city’s affordable housing stock. Though these buildings are not city subsidized and are not in the lottery system, their existence provides affordable homes to hundreds and thousands of people, and losing these units through predatory equity would put even further strain on the system.

The bottom line is we need more affordable housing in this city, not less, and I expect that this program will highlight this fact.