We built new affordable housing in the Bronx. It took nine months to fill vacant units.

We built new affordable housing in the Bronx. It took nine months to fill vacant units.

Melrose North in South Bronx.

June 7, 2024
Crains New York Business
Op-ed by Perry Perlmutter, S:US President & CEO

In July of 2023, Services for the UnderServed (S:US), together with our development partner, opened a brand new affordable and supportive housing building in the Morrisania neighborhood of the South Bronx. The new complex is a prime example of the kind of development that New York City needs — new, modern housing that is affordable below the area median income and available to working families and those moving out of our overcrowded shelter system.

While our building opened in July, it has only recently reached close to full capacity — meaning that dozens of supportive housing and lottery-awarded affordable units remained vacant for six months or more. This reality underscores a collection of deeper problems in the city’s housing systems that hamper the efficient allocation of subsidized housing.

Simply put, we shouldn’t let laborious bureaucracy stand in the way of solving our housing crisis.

When we opened our Melrose North development, it represented a building block in a larger campaign to develop beautiful, environmentally sustainable, and deeply affordable housing across the city. Built on an underutilized site that had previously contained only a trash compactor unit, the new building includes 171 apartments, community and computer rooms, a wonderful outdoor play area, a community garden, a beautiful mural designed in collaboration with local NYCHA residents, and 24-hour on-site security. In addition, this development incorporated cutting edge sustainable design, construction, and operations to achieve passive house certification for superior energy efficiency and resident comfort.

Lobby, backyard, and unit at Melrose North.

In this development, 103 units are designated for supportive housing, which is a model that combines affordable housing with supportive services tailored to the needs of individuals or families facing challenges such as homelessness, mental illness, substance use, or other barriers to stable housing. However, the path to accessing these units is fraught with bureaucratic challenges, involving multiple city agencies.

This process is riddled with redundant paperwork and requires a litany of documentation — records that people who have lived on the street or experienced domestic violence sometimes lack. People who are already struggling must prove, over and over again, the extent of their personal and financial troubles.

Too often, the result of that paperwork is a series of delays and frustrations, where families who finally have an opportunity to move into stable, long-term housing are stuck in the limbo of the shelter system as they gather paperwork. In some cases, we are prevented from moving families from shelters that our own organization operates — families that are known to us and already receiving care from our team — into housing that we operate.

The remaining 65 units of this development are subsidized affordable units, open to moderate- and low-income New Yorkers through the City’s housing lottery. The lottery process is run by a platform called Housing Connect, which went through a major overhaul in 2020. Unfortunately, the underlying processes of the lottery still leads to long delays: Selected applicants are typically notified by email and/or mail and must then undergo a verification process to confirm their eligibility by providing additional documentation such as tax returns, pay stubs, and identification. Once eligibility is confirmed, applicants may be offered a lease for an affordable housing unit.

If an applicant is deemed ineligible at this stage, they also have the right to appeal — a process that can take additional months. In the meantime, the unit in question is required to remain empty and cannot be offered to anyone else.

The delays in bringing people to new housing are frustrating right now, but without meaningful correction, they could become debilitating. S:US has committed to bringing more than 2,000 new affordable units online in the next five years. Some experts believe New York is short of more than 300,000 homes due to underproduction over the past few decades.

If we are going to build real, affordable housing at scale to fill that gap, then a process should be developed that will allow us to fill that housing at speed. While we acknowledge that city agencies have met, on an ongoing basis, with various stakeholders and advocates to try and improve these processes, a more sustained effort is needed. We think it would help if city officials work collaboratively with service providers and property managers like S:US to identify paperwork redundancies and streamline the approval process for supportive housing. It would also help if the lottery process to move more people into our buildings faster was streamlined. We invite city officials to join us as partners in these efforts.

In this time in New York City’s history, with historic demand for housing and overflowing shelters, we cannot allow affordable apartments to be left vacant for months. As a city and housing community, we know we can do better.

Perry Perlmutter is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Services for the UnderServed, a non-profit focused on providing solutions to individuals facing poverty and homelessness.

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