Affordable Housing Could Look Like This

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The view from a one-bedroom in Hunter’s Point South, a new affordable-housing building in Queens.

Like most everyone else in this scrunched city, my sister Katie has a scary-first-apartment story. It was a tenement in a remote part of Washington Heights: one bedroom, $1,450 a month, with mice. (Luckily, she has a cat.) She later found a better place, in a shingled Gowanus rowhouse, down a narrow set of basement stairs and next to a wheezy boiler: studio, $1,100. It once flooded.

As rents spiraled around her, Katie didn’t know how she’d ever get out of the basement. Then she got really lucky. She won the lottery for an apartment in Hunter’s Point South, a new affordable-housing development in Queens. “Every time I tell people I got this unit,” Katie says, “they say they’ve never met anyone who has gotten in via the housing lottery.” How long were the odds? There were 925 units available in the complex, and 92,925 applicants — a population roughly the size of Albany — entered the lottery.

Hunter’s Point South is the city’s largest affordable-housing development since the 1970s. The project was begun by Mayor Michael Bloomberg on a 30-acre parcel of formerly industrial East River waterfront that had previously been slated to house athletes for the city’s thwarted Olympics bid. But it is arriving just in time to benefit Mayor de Blasio, who has promised to address the city’s housing crisis. Conceptually, Hunter’s Point South is a throwback to the era of massive middle-class housing projects like Stuyvesant Town and Co-op City. Though around 20 percent of the units in the new buildings serve the poor, the rest are reserved for middle-income households. Future phases — which will eventually encompass 5,000 apartments — will include some market-rate units.

Despite the city’s overwhelming demand for housing, the project’s developer, the Related Companies, put a lot of effort into marketing it, holding town halls and handing out flyers outside Manhattan hospitals just across the river. “It’s a relatively new concept to get across to the public,” says Related executive Vera Silver, “to know that affordable housing could be attractive, and comfortable, and filled with amenities.” As a single woman with a job with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, Katie fit the income profile. She first heard about Hunter’s Point South last fall, when a friend posted a link on Facebook about the lottery. She went to a city-run website called NYC Housing Connect and filled in a short application that asked for salary information.

I had no intention of moving to Queens,” Katie says. “It was just sort of like on a whim. It just seemed so unlikely that I was ever going to get it.”

The number of applications for Hunter’s Point South was the largest response in the history of New York City’s lottery system. After the 60-day application period was over, the city’s housing department randomly ordered the entries. Katie checked the website, and found that she was No. 20,285 on the list. Oh well, she thought and went on with her life. Then, in April, she received an email out of the blue with the subject line: “Apartment Opportunity — Hunter’s Point South!”

The email said that her application had been selected for “initial review.” It turned out her lottery number was pretty good. Units in the buildings were to be allotted according to complicated formulas, based not just on income levels and household size but also a variety of preferences, including one for city employees. Katie submitted some more documentation — tax returns, pay stubs — and waited to hear further news.

One day in July, Katie texted me, saying she was on her way to Hunter’s Point South for the next step: an interview. “Taking the water taxi there,” she wrote. “I could get used to this.” The ferry docked at a brand-new city park adjacent to Related’s two buildings, which — by design — look pretty much indistinguishable from the luxury towers of adjacent Long Island City. Katie hung around the neighborhood until 10 p.m. that night, trying to get a feel for it, testing out the walk to the subway. She wasn’t totally sold. “It seemed nice,” she said, “but quieter.”

After that, Katie heard nothing for a while. “I started to lose hope,” she said. Then, in September, she was offered a lease on a studio. She had 48 hours to decide whether to take it. I joined her on a tour of the unit. It had a walk-in closet, a separate kitchen with stainless-steel appliances, and a breathtaking view of the United Nations and the Chrysler Building through a floor-to-ceiling window. A Related leasing agent showed us the downstairs gym and the roof deck, which has gas grills and an urban farm.

Here’s the part of the story that isn’t a fairy tale: Katie’s affordable apartment was going to cost her a whole lot more than the basement. Hunter’s Point South was offering this 486-square-foot studio for nearly $1,700 a month. Outside the low-income segment, rents in the buildings — ranging from $1,500 to $2,000 for a studio, $2,000 to $2,500 for a one-bedroom, and going as high as $4,300 a month for a three-bedroom — aren’t exactly cheap.

But in the end, Katie decided the comfort, and the security of rent stabilization, justified the cost. “There really isn’t any other way to live in New York City at this point,” Katie told me one day in November, as she sat in the couch at her new place. “Either there’s some kind of situation where you get a break, or you move out of the city.” Her cat, Myron, paced in front of the window overlooking the park, where mothers were pushing strollers and one young couple was kissing. She’s still settling into her new environs. “I’m not used to having a doorman at all,” she said. “It’s weird to have someone say hi to me.” Katie has met a few of her neighbors, who seem to skew young and single. Recently, management sent out a stern email, threatening eviction, after discovering that some tenants were trying to rent out their units on Airbnb. Just like New Yorkers, always pushing their luck.

*This article appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.