Apartments in this recently opened Betances VI building on 146th Street in Mott Haven were drawn through the NYC Housing Lottery in February. Photo: Leo G. Miranda.

Finding an affordable apartment in the South Bronx is about to get harder for local residents hoping to stay in their neighborhoods.

New York City’s decades-long policy of holding 50 percent of affordable housing units for local applicants will drop to just 20 percent in late April. In 2029, the number of affordable units set aside for people who live in the building’s zip code or nearby – known as community preference – will fall again, to 15 percent.

Supporters of the change, which grew out of a landmark federal lawsuit challenging the city’s use of community preference, say it will broaden affordable housing options to residents throughout the city. Critics say it will mean further displacement among communities already struggling with record-high rents and rapid gentrification.

Once the new regulations go into effect, 80% of apartments in the city’s housing lotteries will be available to all New Yorkers regardless of where they live, as long as they meet the eligibility requirements such as income and household size.

The Lawsuit

In January, the city settled a long-running civil rights lawsuit that alleged the community preference policy perpetuated segregation and violated the Fair Housing Act, as well as the city’s human rights law. The suit argued that the policy disadvantaged people from getting apartments outside their own neighborhoods. In a segregated city like New York, the suit said the policy effectively helped to block integration.

Former Mayor Ed Koch created community preference units in the 1980s in a bid to stimulate development in disinvested neighborhoods. His policy stipulated that 30 percent of new affordable units be earmarked for locals. In 2002, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg boosted it to 50 percent.

Current Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement that the case settlement preserved community preference and called the policy “a critical tool” in creating new affordable housing citywide. The alternative to settlement was a jury trial, which risked the complete dismantling of community preference.

Community Support

City Councilman Rafael Salamanca, who represents Hunts Point, Longwood, Melrose and Port Morris in the South Bronx, said community preference is key to gathering neighborhood support for new affordable housing developments. The lottery change may mean local community boards will be less likely to approve them.

“Quite honestly, [they] just made life much more difficult for us elected officials – and for those individuals who are either a nonprofit or a developer – to get our community to support a project,” said Salamanca.

“Now, you’re building in our communities, and a smaller percentage of local residents will have access to those units,” he said.

Craig Gurian, the attorney and executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center, filed the lawsuit challenging community preference in 2015 on behalf of two Black New Yorkers who were unable to get housing in city-run lotteries outside their neighborhoods. An expert analysis submitted as part of his lawsuit said that more than eight in 10 households applied for housing lottery units outside their community districts at least three-quarters of the time.

Gurian believes that the reduction in the community preference will actually benefit New Yorkers in need of lower rents and help diversify the city.

New units “will be available to the much more integrated general pool of New Yorkers,” he said.

He doesn’t agree with those who say that affordable housing developments won’t get approval without robust community preference policies.

“Another scare tactic from those who are satisfied with a segregated status quo,” said Gurian.

Affordability in the South Bronx

There are multiple definitions of affordable housing within New York City, which has struggled to keep pace with a surge in population, costs, rents and a sharp increase in homelessness over the past decade.

Affordable apartments are awarded to eligible applicants through a housing lottery. The competition for housing lotteries is fierce, and the selection and approval process can be lengthy.

One such development, The Peninsula in Hunts Point, completed the first phase of its project – 183 apartments – in early 2022. Studios at that time began at $396 per month, while three-bedroom apartments capped at $2,131 per month, according to lottery listings.

The affordable housing and mixed-use development is being built in three phases, and will have 740 units when fully completed.

The initial affordable housing lottery at The Peninsula earmarked 50 percent of the 183 units for community preference applicants, according to Ismene Speliotis, executive director of MHANY Management, which manages The Peninsula.

The development will have to reduce that number to 20 percent for its next lottery under the terms of the settlement, said Speliotis.

MHANY Management has asked the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development for permission to stay at 50 percent community preference for the second phase of its rollout. If denied, the mutual housing association plans to be aggressive in its outreach to area residents, said Speliotis.

“We won’t stop trying to maximize the number of people from Hunts Point that apply for this lottery no matter what,” she said.

Peninsula resident Victoria Melendez in front of the construction site that will be phase 2 of the affordable housing project, with over 300 additional apartments to open in 2026. Photo: Christine Zeiger.

Winning a housing lottery was life-changing for South Bronxite Victoria Melendez. She was undomiciled and living in a shelter north of Yankee Stadium when she learned her name had been entered into a lottery, and she’d been awarded a spot in the state-of-the-art Peninsula development on Tiffany Street.

Since then, Melendez has taken an active role at The Peninsula, helping to organize movie nights, a cooking class and other activities for tenants. She believes housing lotteries should be awarded based on the qualifications of applicants – an ability to pay rent, for example, and live in harmony with many neighbors – rather than geography.

“I think that everything should be based on situation, and how severe the need is,” she said. “It shouldn’t matter if you’re from Manhattan or from Brooklyn; [preference] should be based on the needs of the person and their history.”

On a tour of the building, Melendez added that she’s grateful every day to be living in The Peninsula.

“God doesn’t make mistakes,” she said.

Even with community preference units set aside for South Bronx locals, many don’t earn enough to qualify for affordable housing.

Nearly half of all households in these districts earn less than $30,000 annually, according to the Census.

This makes it imperative to develop affordable housing with the lowest-income South Bronx residents in mind, said Speliotis.

“People in our neighborhoods have suffered a lot,” said Speliotis. “The fact that they could actually have a leg up in a lottery for a brand-new house that they could afford is like a really big deal and a big loss.”

This has been true for Arlene Martin, who lives in a New York City Housing Authority apartment in Pelham Bay and works part-time for the city’s Parks Department. She started applying for housing lotteries before her 14-year-old daughter was born.

“The buildings look great, but you still can’t get it,” she said.

Martin stopped applying, frustrated with the $25 credit check fees and the constant rejections. She would like to stay in Pelham Bay, she said, but would move to another place, especially Westchester or Mount Vernon, if she could find affordable housing.

“Who actually gets these apartments?” she wondered. “I’ve been trying, but no luck.”

Are you a South Bronx resident who has applied to a housing lottery? We’d like to hear about your experience. Complete this form to have a reporter reach out to you.

Editor's note: Mayor Bloomberg changed the community preference to 50 percent in 2002. Due to an editor’s error, an earlier version of this story had the incorrect year.

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