The process of applying for subsidized housing can be perplexing, to say the least.

The confusion is to be expected, given the city’s piecemeal approach to building this housing, said Alyssa Katz, Senior Fellow for Policy and Communications at the Pratt Center for Community Development.

“It’s designed to be a crazy quilt,” Katz said. “Of course it’s confusing for tenants.”

But there is some help available to those navigating the system.

Katz, along with other experts on housing policy, representatives of public agencies and developers, offered the NYCity News Service some guidelines and tips for New Yorkers seeking subsidized housing.

One place for buyers to start is a guide on the website of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the city agency responsible for developing subsidized housing. The site has tips and resources for the entire process, from finding a listing to getting a mortgage to choosing a real estate lawyer.

Apartment Homework

HPD has a list of available homes for purchase or rental. Additional listings can be found on the city Housing Development Corporation’s website and through the state Homes and Community Renewal, which maintains a separate list. There is some overlap between these lists, because the agencies often work together.

HPD’s list includes contact information for private developers with vacant units in new buildings. The agency list also often links to advertisements that the city requires developers to run in at least three citywide daily newspapers.

The ads instruct home-seekers on the size of available apartments, monthly rent or maintenance costs, and the income range residents need to have to qualify for the unit, as well as how to request an application, whether by phone or mail.

What Can You Afford?

The city defines “affordable” housing as costing 30 percent of household net earnings. One way to figure out that number is by using the MFI calculator available on HCR’s website. After the calculation is made, a link on the same page leads to rental apartments in that price range.

For each development, home-seekers should first examine the building’s specifications and requirements, said Corcoran Group broker Greg Todd.  He said he has found it difficult to fill the units at  The Maynard Coops, a 47-unit subsidized co-op building in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The building has reduced the prices of the units, and wooed buyers with offers of flat-screen TVs and open houses catered by local restaurants. Part of the problem, Todd said, is prospective buyers sometimes apply without fully thinking through the process.

“It’s like trying to win the lottery, you never think you’re going to win,” said Todd. “Then they win, and they’re like, ‘I have to live in Crown Heights? I don’t want to live there. Wait, I have to make $50,000 a year? I don’t make that kind of money.’”

The Application

Applications for subsidized housing units request the applicant’s name, current address, salary, employer’s name and contact information, along with the same details for everyone living in the apartment.

The complete application must then be sent to a designated post office box. Deadlines for application vary by project, but are very strict. Many projects get thousands of applications for a few units, so it is important to get all the information together and into the mail on time.

Developers contact eligible applicants who are picked in the lottery to advance to the next stage of the process. The rest may not hear back.

This process can take months or even drag out for over a year. If the entire development offers low-income or medium-income housing, the developer needs to sell or rent a certain percentage of the units before residents can move in.

Interview Prep

Developers verify a family’s income range through two types of documents: tax returns and pay stubs. Applicants should prepare these documents ahead of time, in case they are called for an interview. If applicants receive irregular income, as can be the case for freelance or temporary contract employees, applicants may also have to submit a letter from an employer.

This documentation is used to prove that the applicant’s income falls within the guidelines specified by the public agency supporting the project. Remember to include all sources of income, including child support.

The Lottery

Here’s the part that subsidized housing applicants often find mysterious. A week after the application deadline, a representative from the public agency and a representative from the developer retrieve the applications from the post office.

They then choose applications at random, and enter them in a log of prospective residents, who are checked for eligibility in that order.

After the deadline, if the units have not been filled by qualified applicants, developers can examine applications in the order that they are received.


Applicants selected and deemed to meet the project’s qualifications are called for interviews with the developers. People are called in the order the applications were drawn, but applicants who meet certain criteria – including living in the community district in which the development is located, being an active municipal employee, or being mobility impaired – can be prioritized in some developments.

Selected applicants are usually notified within a month of the application deadline, and must bring in documentation required to verify income levels.

Developers perform credit and criminal background checks. Most people have to pay a fee for the credit check, but if the household’s income is below 40 percent of citywide median family income, the developer waives this fee.

“’Interview’ is a misnomer,” said Matt Feldman, the vice president of Douglaston Development, the company that built the Edge apartments, a mixed-income development in Williambsurg, Brooklyn. “It’s really just to go over the application checklist and making sure that they have everything in line.”

Getting Help

City and state governments offer programs to help renters and buyers looking for housing.

Homebase, administered by the Department of Homeless Services, assists families in danger of losing their home before they become homeless. The Human Resources Administration can help some people pay back rent in their apartments. The city-sponsored program HomeFirst helps buyers with down-payment and closing costs. The state agency Homes and Community Renewal has information on mortgages for first-time buyers and veterans.

(Editor’s note: Portions of this story were modified to add clarity upon receipt of additional information from HPD.)

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INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC: Click image above for a presentation about the history of affordable housing in New York City. (Produced by Brooks Newkirk)