Simplistic math mangles the odds of affordable housing lotteries

A recent advertisement for the project pitched as "Williamsburg Forward" – redevelopment of the former Pfizer site known as Broadway Triangle – proclaimed, "1,000 applicants for every affordable apartment in NYC? New Yorkers deserve better odds."

Putting aside whether that controversial site offers sufficient affordability, or whether this would bring better odds (really?), the not uncommon observation about a one-in-1,000 chance to win a bargain apartment in a housing lottery deserves a closer look.

Too many officials and journalists rely on simplistic math, which muddies the facts. The chances within a lottery differ enormously, a fact too often ignored. "How long were the odds?" New York magazine declared in December 2015, citing 925 units and 92,925 applicants at Hunters Point South in Queens and implying that one winner profiled – who competed for a middle-income unit, not a low-income one – was extremely lucky.

Actually, middle-class applicants have much better chances than poor New Yorkers, as I discovered analyzing a couple of lotteries for a City Limits article. Examining the 92,743 applications for 297 below-market units at 535 Carlton in Brooklyn, part of the Pacific Park (formerly Atlantic Yards) project, I found that low-income households struggled trying to snag, for example, one-bedroom apartments renting for $589 or $929 per month.

Nearly 67,000 households aimed at the 90 low-income units of various sizes, or one in 744. The odds were actually somewhat better because a good number of applicants either had incomes too low to qualify or fell between two low-income "bands." (Similarly, there were 60,000 applicants for the 110 low-income units at CAMBA Gardens II in Brooklyn, the site of a recent mayoral press conference.)

However, only 2,203 applicants for 535 Carlton fit the preliminary income qualifications for 148 middle-income units – half the building. Most of those households had to earn near or above six figures. While that 1 in 15 chance seems like decent odds, the developer still hasn't been able to fill those apartments with lottery winners since the "100% affordable" building started welcoming residents in April.

The building's developer, Greenland Forest City Partners, recently invited any households fitting into the appropriate income categories to file an application, and also posted listings on StreetEasy. (For a two-bedroom, the minimum income is $111,909, while the maximum income, based on household size, ranges from $126,060 to $157,410.) 

As of November 2, Rachel Holliday Smith of DNAinfo, in an article also posted on City Limits, quoted the developer as saying about 95 units remained available. (That might be sugar-coating it: 535 Carlton was 51 percent full as of Oct. 26, the developer reported to investors, which suggests 147 units available.)

Some middle-income applicants might have not had the right paperwork, or balked at inspection of their finances. But Ismene Speliotis of the Mutual Housing Association of New York, which manages the affordable housing applications for Pacific Park, pointed to the obvious: middle-class households have other choices.

After all, these "affordable" rents, while below-market in Prospect Heights and offering rent stabilization, are no huge bargain: $2,137 for a studio, $2,680 for a one-bedroom, $3,223 for a two-bedroom, and $3,716 for a three-bedroom. 

By contrast, a representative of the developer portrayed it as a marketing issue. “Unfortunately, many middle-income families desperate for good, affordable housing are unaware that they are eligible for these rent-stabilized residences,” Forest City New York's Ashley Cotton told Smith.

But middle-income households earning 135 percent to 165 percent of Area Median Income, as shown in the affordable housing "cheat sheet" prepared by the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, make up a small fraction of New Yorkers. 

They are not, as the saying goes, where the need is greatest. Nor were they among those marching and cheering for Atlantic Yards affordable housing, or testifying poignantly regarding their hopes and needs, during highly charged public meetings and hearings starting in 2004.

In a January 2015 report on the long odds for lotteries, the New York Times noted that 80,000 households applied for just 38 low-income units in Williamsburg. “It really shows how desperate the need is for affordable housing,” developer Martin Dunn told the paper. Well, as long as it's described as "low-income affordable housing."

Indeed, another "100% affordable" building at Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park is now opening, 38 Sixth Avenue, with a configuration similar to 535 Carlton: 152 of the 303 below-market units are designated for upper middle-income households, including one-bedrooms at $2,663 and two-bedrooms at $3,206.

I recently obtained the lottery log for that building: 89,704 households filed applications. Simple math, dividing 89,704 applicants by 303 apartments, suggests that the average applicant had a 1-in-296 chance of finding a home.

But averages are meaningless when it comes to such applications. My closer look shows that only 1,876 households fit the income guidelines for the 152 upper middle-income units. That's about a 1-in-12 chance, all before the applicants face full vetting, and the odds are even better for larger units. 

Given the experience with 535 Carlton, it's a good bet that, as residents move in, many of those not-so-affordable apartments will be hard to fill. 

Brooklyn journalist Norman Oder writes the daily blog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report and is working on a book about the project.