Better Than the Powerball

Winning a spot in one of New York City’s affordable housing lotteries might seem completely out of reach, the stuff of urban legend.

But every day across the five boroughs, tens of thousands of New Yorkers play the odds, and a lucky few check their inboxes to discover they have won an affordable new home. For some, the welcome news may have come just months after they first applied, while for others, it may have taken years.

“I was like, ‘Are you being serious?’ For a minute I thought it was a joke,” said Josh Boscarino, 28, a former actor, after hearing that he had won a large rent-stabilized studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with an oversized window facing the waterfront, months after submitting his first application.

Winners include older adults who rely on Social Security as their sole income and 30-something singles with graduate degrees earning six figures. The vast majority of the units awarded are rent-stabilized apartments that range in price from a few hundred dollars a month to nearly market-rate amounts, although the lotteries also offer some below-market-rate condominiums and cooperatives, and even a few coveted single-family houses.

The lotteries are run by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Housing Development Corporation, and are open to New Yorkers who earn no more than $120,615 for a single person or $199,650 for a family of six. And the demand is so high that it is not unheard-of for the city to receive as many as 58,000 applicants for 58 apartments.

The housing stock available is built and owned by private developers who typically receive subsidies, tax abatements or zoning benefits in exchange for creating below-market-rate units. The units can be found in buildings that are entirely affordable housing, as well as those that include a mix of affordable and market-rate apartments, depending on the type of subsidy the developer received.

Applicants chosen in the agency’s random drawings are screened by the developers, who verify income and interview candidates (a process that is separate from the city’s public housing, which is owned and operated by the New York City Housing Authority).

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made affordable housing a priority, promising to build or preserve a total of 300,000 units by 2026. As part of that effort, the number of apartments made available through the lotteries has increased in recent years. In 2018, some 7,857 apartments were awarded by lottery, compared with 2,741 in 2012, before Mr. de Blasio took office. The administration has also streamlined the application process, expanding NYC Housing Connect, a website translated into seven languages, where applicants can fill out a profile and enter multiple lotteries with the click of a button.

But the increase in the number of units available has been accompanied by a surge in the number of people applying. In 2018, there were more than 4.6 million applicants, with the odds of winning just 1 in 592. In 2012, there were fewer units available, but the odds were far better, at 1 in 80; in 2011, they were 1 in 63.

Despite those daunting statistics, chances of winning are better than it may seem. That is because many of those who apply are disqualified, either because their earnings exceed or are below the requirements for a specific development, or because they fail to provide the necessary paperwork, including work history and tax records.

And depending on the housing project, preference may be given to those who meet certain criteria, like municipal workers, the homeless or residents of the neighborhood where the development is being built. (The latter, known as community preference, has come under attackfor perpetuating racial segregation in some neighborhoods, and in the wake of a growing homeless population, some have also criticized the lottery program for not giving enough preference to the homeless.)

Those who have won housing lotteries are a diverse group, from a variety of socioeconomic, racial and geographic backgrounds. Despite their differences, however, they tend to have something in common: Many have faced challenging life events, and nearly all insist that the key to winning the lottery is determination.

“You have to know how to hustle and be on it,” said Erika Lindsey, an urban planner who spent nearly a decade applying to lotteries before winning a one-bedroom in Brooklyn, near Barclays Center. “My main advice is to be persistent.”