How an Edge for Neighborhood Residents Skews the Odds in NYC’s Housing Lotteries
The “community preference” that allots half of affordable apartments to locals is under fire in a federal civil rights lawsuit — and makes getting a place harder for many.
As calls for racial justice reverberate through the city and nation, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature affordable housing program is leaving an unequal legacy around the boroughs, an analysis by THE CITY found.
Of the 50,000 new units of affordable housing built or financed since 2014, more than half are concentrated in just ten predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, from East New York in Brooklyn to Mott Haven in The Bronx, a review of city Department of Housing Preservation and Development data shows.
In the city’s 10 whitest districts, just 2,700 new affordable units have been generated through the program.
That uneven distribution of apartments among the 300,000 units the mayor promises to build or preserve by 2026 doesn’t just concentrate low-income Black and Latino tenants in low-income areas, as THE CITY previously reported. It also skews the odds dramatically between different neighborhoods.
A set-aside of half of the affordable apartments in most housing lotteries for area residents means that the competition for available apartments heavily favors locals — while locking out outsiders. The set-aside is called the “community preference,” and it dates back to the era of Mayor Ed Koch.
Where one lives can significantly alter the chances of getting an affordable apartment at all.
For others, the community preference precludes moving to areas with better opportunities, in a system where the odds are already stacked heavily against success in affordable housing lotteries for those who need the help most.
Looking for a ‘Unicorn’
A pending federal civil rights lawsuit, Noel v. City of New York, argues this separation amounts to illegal racial segregation because giving local applicants an edge further concentrates Black residents in heavily Black neighborhoods, white residents in white areas.
The de Blasio administration faces an Aug. 14 deadline to file a response to the plaintiffs’ push for a judge’s decision.
Ultimately, anyone looking to move to a different neighborhood is affected — and that’s what most housing lottery entrants aspire to do. The vast majority seek apartments outside of their current neighborhoods, according to data released under a court order, after a battle by city officials to hide the information.
More than 9 out of 10 applicants for any given project don’t live in the district, dramatically shrinking their chances of success, the plaintiffs’ analysis of city NYC Housing Connect applications finds.
Based on the plaintiffs’ calculations, THE CITY found that between 2014 and 2019 each community preference apartment drew 37 eligible local applicants in the lottery pool — while the remainder, open to anyone else in New York City, had 586 vying for each.
Those uneven chances locked Danielle out of a shot at an affordable apartment. THE CITY is withholding her full name at her request.
Last summer, right after the Brooklyn native landed in a Long Island City shelter due to the threat of domestic violence, she immediately started looking for any housing she could: on Facebook Marketplace, through ads in the newspaper and via Housing Connect.
“I started applying to all of them — just to kind of cast a wide net,” said Danielle, who is Black. “Overall, I want to say I applied for maybe 40 or 50 developments.”
Because her income is low — $19,600 with disability payments — the odds were already stacked against her.
But it’s where she lives, in an area with little new affordable housing, that all but ensured she’d be frozen out.
In Queens Community District 1, just 81 affordable units available to people at her income level are in the works — the first to be built there under de Blasio’s plan. But so far, the district has not had a single apartment constructed where she would be able to take advantage of the 50% community preference set-aside for area residents.
“I had trouble finding things that were in Queens. In the Long Island City, Astoria area, I couldn’t find any buildings,” she said.
Near her shelter, she saw a lot of new construction happening, but it was “all for high-end, luxury apartments,” she said.
Ultimately, Danielle found an apartment in a New Jersey building for people with disabilities. She moved there in June.
For those still looking, she has some advice: don’t hang your hopes on winning the housing lottery.
“It’s kind of like this unicorn — this mythical creature,” she said. “I wish everybody the best as far as lottery apartments, but it’s like, don’t hold your breath.”
City officials have fought bitterly to preserve the community preference, arguing in court depositions that the set-asides are necessary to win the support of local City Council members who have the power to torpedo projects.
“The Community Preference policy is a vital part of the city’s overall housing strategy, which seeks to empower residents who would like to find housing opportunities outside of their current community, while also providing an avenue for those who wish to stay in their communities,” said Matthew Creegan, a spokesman for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
Creegan added those who end up in those lottery apartments “represent the diversity of New York City and the housing challenges facing our residents.”
Recognizing that New York remains one of the most segregated cities in the country, HPD has also launched an effort, called Where We Live, to expand housing integration and fair housing enforcement.
But critics complain the agency locks out applicants when making politically fraught decisions around where to press for rezonings to make affordable housing possible.
Some neighborhoods can use their political clout and financial resources to exclude affordable housing, observed Sarah Lazur, a member of the Crown Heights Tenants Union.
One in five households in the district lives in poverty, and 58% of area residents are Black.
“They are rezoning for height in areas that mostly don’t have the capital necessary to push back and tend to have more people of color living there,” said Lazur, also a member of Brooklyn Community Board 8’s Housing and Land Use committee, which covers Crown Heights and Prospect Heights.
But just because housing gets built doesn’t mean it’s within reach of local residents in need, despite the community preference.
The city Department of Housing Preservation and Development has tallied just 748 new affordable units as of April — more than a third of them limited to households earning between $122,880 and $168,960 a year for a family of three.
“The amount of affordable housing that we get for allowing all of this luxury development in our neighborhoods is simply not worth it,” said Lazur. “It’s a joke.”
In some areas, officials embrace community preference as a chance to deliver scarce affordable housing to their constituents.
“It helps to bring about some equity or this opportunity for people who have been marginalized and not had an opportunity to be included,” said Councilmember Inez Barron (D-Brooklyn).
In Community Board 5, which overlaps with her East New York Council district, nearly 3,700 apartments for those who earn up to $81,920 for a family of three have been built or are in the pipeline. That’s the most anywhere in the city.
“We were very intentional and very aware that housing that had to come into a low-income community had to meet the needs of people already existing,” said Barron.
But even in areas with high affordable housing production, residents are out of luck if they hope to move elsewhere.
Dana Weinberg said she’s been applying to affordable housing outside of her Rockaways-area neighborhood for at least as long as her 11-year-old daughter has been alive.
So far, nothing has come through for the white native New Yorker, who shares an apartment in Broad Channel with her daughter. She earns between $25,000 and $36,000 a year working as a scheduler for a Lower Manhattan salon. She believes finding housing closer to job opportunities would put her on more solid ground.
“It’s almost a little bit backwards. Like, we think that we need a job to find an apartment, but sometimes you need the apartment to get the job,” she said.
While they may share geography, not every local resident is coming from the same place when they apply. For one, it doesn’t matter whether an applicant has lived in the area for two months or a lifetime.
“You could live in parts of the South Bronx and you could have been living there for 20 years and have had difficult life conditions,” said Craig Gurian, the lead attorney for Anti-Discrimination Center, which filed the federal civil rights case on behalf of two Brooklyn and Queens Black residents.
“If you apply to one of the few apartments that are made available on the Upper East Side — it doesn’t matter that you’ve persevered through difficult living conditions. You’re an outsider, and you go to the back of the line.”
Competition tends to be fiercest for apartments in predominantly white neighborhoods, data shows. Fewer outsiders have applied for housing in a majority-black community districts — such as Crown Heights, with about 13 outsider applicants for every current resident, compared to a majority-white Greenpoint, where 31 outsiders apply for every local who does.
“The way the community preference or outsider restriction element works is necessarily to deprive people of a level playing field based on race,” Gurian said.
What’s more, in some neighborhoods the income levels for the affordable units are far out of line with the incomes of most local residents.
Three-fourths of almost 600 new affordable apartments financed or built since 2014 in East Flatbush are set aside for people whose earnings qualify for the middle-income category — earning up to $168,960 for a family of three. Yet only 9% of the households in the district make the cut-off, THE CITY’s analysis of Census Bureau data shows.
In rapidly gentrifying areas, those in the middle-income bracket tend to be white, even in majority-Black or Hispanic neighborhoods.
“Landlords see that, and they’re like, ‘Oh, white people want to move here. So why don’t we kick out some of our Black tenants.’ And then you start to get this snowball effect,” said Esteban Girón, member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union, Tenants PAC and Brooklyn Community Board 9’s Land Use Committee.
The disparity is felt acutely by Black New Yorkers. In a recent report on anti-Black racism from the city’s Commission on Human Rights, frustration with the housing lottery came through.
Participants challenged the “affordable” label, expressed concern that “benchmarks were set at levels that placed even ‘affordable’ housing out of their reach and that of others in their communities” — and worried that white applicants received “preferential treatment in the lottery process,” the report said.
“When you start seeing the people in the streets that are getting the affordable housing, it is white people,” the report quoted one respondent as saying.
Girón said middle-income units going unfilled in a predominantly minority neighborhood illustrates how the community preference yields little when the units do not reflect residents’ needs.
To Girón, the current policy “gives politicians covers to be able to say, ‘Oh yeah, This is for our community.”
“It’s only helping them create this facade of affordability,” Girón said. “It’s just not working.”