Life After Winning the NYC Housing Lottery

For New York City residents, rewatches of classics set in the Big Apple like Friends and Sex and the City are often accompanied by a pointless yet nagging undercurrent of irritation: How in the world did they afford these egregiously fabulous apartments? Yes, we can separate the beautiful fiction of set design from hard reality, but nevertheless it’s eternally on our minds, given 69% of New Yorkers are renters forced to renegotiate or reconsider our living arrangements just about every year. As Carrie Bradshaw herself mused over two decades ago (in what we now reflect on as simpler times), “In New York, they say, you’re always looking for a job, a boyfriend, or an apartment,” and while some dedicated networking might be your best bet for each of the two formers, there is in fact a system aimed at addressing the free-for-all that comes with securing reasonably priced—for New York—housing. Though it’s not a sure thing by any means: It’s a lottery.

According to NYC’s Housing Preservation & Development Department (HPD), the New York City housing lottery largely took shape under the guidance of Mayor Ed Koch, who served from 1978 to 1989. Aileen Reynolds, HPD’s Assistant Commissioner of Housing Opportunity, tells AD what those acquainted with the city’s real estate market already know well: New York has enormous demand for affordable housing, and an extremely low vacancy rate—“around 1%,” Aileen says. “The need for affordable housing—and not only affordable housing, but safe, clean, secure, affordable housing—is really critical, and unfortunately we don’t have enough of it to make sure every single person has it at this moment.”

blackandwhite image of Mayor Ed Koch Governor Mario Cuomo former HPD Commissioner Anthony Gliedman picking a housing...

Mayor Koch conducting a homeownership lottery in December 1983 using bingo balls. The drawing took place in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn.

Photo: Leonard Boykin and Paul Rice

Hence the lottery: An admittedly imperfect solution to the colossal housing problem that, Aileen says, seeks to be as equitable as possible in deciding how the coveted few units—nearly all of which are rent stabilized—are doled out. All the spaces are income-restricted, and a tiered system is set up to make certain that those applying are being matched to residences the program deems equivalent for their earnings. From 2014 through 2021, HPD reports that more than 29,000 New Yorkers moved into homes via the lotteries for affordable housing.

The housing lottery, like the city’s housing crisis, is really nothing novel, though it’s been updated with the times to improve accessibility, which has led to more and more applicants over the years. “The original housing lottery was essentially an advertisement being placed in a newspaper instructing applicants to send an application in by mail,” Aileen says. “On the day of the lottery, all of those applications would be thrown in a big black garbage bag and shaken up and, individually, an envelope would be taken out and written down on a log…. We’ve come a long way since then.”

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