Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How we bought an affordable 3-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. (PSST: SEWING ROOM)

Me, painting our new three-bedroom apartment bright orange and turquoise, as one does

Yeah, so, we bought a three-bedroom prewar apartment in Manhattan through an affordable housing organization. It was all rather sudden. We couldn't afford our neighborhood in Brooklyn anymore (see here for explanation of the below image)...

So we started hunting around in June and it looked like we were going to be moving to New Jersey or high up in the Bronx, and we kept applying to housing lotteries with no luck and all the waiting lists for Mitchell Lama buildings were YEARS long and then I randomly started reading about income-restricted HDFC coop affordable housing apartments...

And I came across an article about UHAB, a non-profit organization that fixes up dilapidated buildings and then sells the occupied apartments to current tenants and vacant apartments to moderate and low income families. What's especially cool about these apartments is that they are permanently affordable — they are real homes, not market-rate investments. Under new HDFC rules, they can only EVER be sold to families who fit the income restrictions for pretty much the exact price paid (plus inflation).

And I randomly called this organization and they had ONE three-bedroom apartment left for a family of our size and income in a building in Harlem and it could MAYBE be ours if we got our application in right away. So we stayed up all night assembling a massive pile of documents and bank statements and landlord letters and identity papers and paystubs and I messengered it over the next day.

After months of additional paperwork and various hurdles, it was done. We moved in September just in time for the start of kindergarten for Ms. Z and here I sit today in our new home in a 1910 elevator building in beautiful Hamilton Heights, Harlem.

So what about that sewing room, you ask?! Do such things exist in the isle of Manhattan?

Well, sort of. It's really a bedroom for one of the kids, but the little baby dude is still in a crib in our room for now, so I am going to temporarily luxuriate in the feeling of having an actual sewing room.

Except that it is just a big pile of boxes at the moment:

And the only thing I've actually sewn in there so far was a gusset to expand Z's Ghostbusters Halloween costume because we didn't have time for a new costume idea this year.

Because life these days has been all about the sleep-deprivation of being a full-time working mom with a nursing-through-the-night baby, plus some unpacking, painting, and assembling of furniture...

Ruby the Riveter: My dad helps Z assemble her IKEA Kura bed.

I can't complain though. I may be a sleep-deprived half-functioning zombie, but the little dude is CUTE. And massive. And outgrowing all of his hand-knits which I have not had time to replace with newer, bigger knits.

P.S. Dressmakers, Tailors, Milliners and a Cartoonist

AND to top it all off, the building has a cool history. Z loves that we live just blocks from the former home of famed Harlem Renaissance anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston. Plus my amazing mom put her genealogy skills to use and dug up the census records for 1910, 1920 and 1930. Upon which I learned that amidst the early residents of our building were quite a few:

  • dressmakers
  • milliners
  • tailors
  • silk and fabric salesmen
  • ... and even a well-known cartoonist!

So there you have it. It was MEANT TO BE. Now if I can just get around to hemming the curtains we hung up more than a month ago...


  1. I'm happy for you, and yet infuriated at the lack of workforce housing. One should not have to win the lottery (literally) to obtain workforce housing near work.

    1. Agreed! Average market rate rents in our neighborhood in Brooklyn had jumped to my entire take-home pay. And to find anything that would leave us enough for groceries and basic living expenses we would have ended up in Jersey or the Bronx. Housing shouldn't cost more than 50% of your take-home pay!

      NYC is trying to have more affordable housing but demand far exceeds supply. We got lucky. The affordable housing program we went through matches families with homes where monthly expenses won't exceed 30% of income.

    2. Just curious - what happens if your income increases to exceed the limits? They can't force you to sell, can they? I know with rental units, tenants are terminated if they exceed the income requirements, but I don't know how it's handled with for-sale units? If this is too nosy, don't mind me! I'm genuinely curious.

    3. @Inder-ific It depends on where you live and what kind of program you are in. I helped my house-rich, cash-poor mom sell her house near SF and move into a 'moderate income' apartment.

      They certified her eligibility when she moved in, but they won't check again unless she moves apartments within the complex. This can happen as they refurbish apartments in the complex on a rolling basis.

      She's safe as I don't foresee her exceeding the income limits. 'Moderate income' in Silicon Valley is defined at $90k/year for 1 person and $150k/yr for 2. They add a % of assets (savings) to the income, but that's typically 2-10% so a person with modest retirement savings will still qualify.

      Other programs ,where you purchase at an affordable price and sell at that price + CPI, don't usually make you sell your home if your income rises.

      In Section 8, the portion of your rent that you are responsible for paying is 30% your income; it can rise and fall with your income.

      I wish that, instead of spending so much time imitating Singapore Math, we imitated Singapore's approach to workforce housing. 85% of Singapore's residents live in government-provided clean and safe apartments with subsidized rents to make them affordable.

    4. BTW, you have super-cute kids and I am so happy that they get to grow up in super-historic Harlem.

    5. For this HDFC program, the income cap is 120% of AMI (area median income), which is about $103,000 for a family of four, and I believe there is a preference for those at or below 100% AMI.

      The monthly costs for the apartment can't exceed 30% of income. Similar to what is described above, they would only recertify our income if we applied to sell our place and move to a larger apartment in the building due to a change in family size, etc.

      There are strict rules about subletting, roommates, etc. Anyone who will live in the apartment counts towards the income cap.

      The Mitchell Lama program is different — it's another program that allows moderate income and low income families to buy apartments in New York, but if your income goes up, you do have to pay a surcharge (though you can keep your apartment).

    6. Thanks for the details! I work more in the world of affordable rental housing than for-sale, it's cool to learn about the different programs! Interesting stuff. @badmomgoodmom, I live in Oakland, so I'm in the same general region!

  2. What great news, enjoy decorating and unpacking.

  3. CONGRATULATIONS on the new home! And, GOSH, your kids are getting so big! They're absolutely gorgeous, btw. I hope life starts to settle down as you get settled in.

  4. Congratulations! I'm happy to hear you guys found an affordable place!

  5. Congratulations Mikhaela! I'm jealous - a REAL SEWING ROOM?! I say you have the kids share a bedroom anyway, indefinitely (that's what we do, and I still don't have a sewing room! lol!). I'm glad you were able to take advantage of a deed restricted affordable housing opportunity, that is really awesome. I work for city government, so I work on some of those deals from the city side. In California, the real estate market crashed so hard during the downturn that all residential development just came to a halt. Nothing was built (or rehabbed in any meaningful way) for basically eight years. Now the economy is recovering, but rents are sky-high and vacancy rates really low because the demand increased but the supply did not. So we're facing an affordable housing crisis that is the worst I've seen in my career. Hopefully with the market warming up, developers will get back in the business of building/rehabbing affordable housing units ... At any rate, I know how fortunate you were to get in on this deal - never let it go! Love the paint colors!

  6. I was hoping the radio silence was something like this, which is pretty cool even if the title of this post is a total oxymoronic idea. And a miracle, I might add. So hail hail hail your miraculous housing!
    And Ghostbustering is going to be topical for this and next year. Orange safety stripes for the ladies! Because like K Hallion's shirt says: if someone asks if you are a goddess, you say yes.


    1. He is not someone known today—he was sort of mildly well-known as an artist in the 1920s, but enough so that when I googled his name his work came up in collections at the NYPL, the Met, and more. I don't want to reveal the building address, though!

  7. OMG!!!! So excited for you. What a great project. I hope you guys are super duper happy there! :D

  8. How awesome! Truly meant to be. Congratulations on your new home!

  9. Glad you have found a wonderful home..
    Your children are adorable.

  10. Wow, congratulations! That is super awesome. I am pleased there are some schemes like this. Cities lose out overall when only the super rich can afford to live in them (or own property in them that they visit a few times a year).
    (As a New Zealander I find it terrifying what constitutes a low to middle income in Silicon Valley and NYC though).
    Anyway, how cool to own your own place, and your kids are adorable. May your life there be happy and full of laughter.

  11. How fantastic, it must be great to have your own home after feeling the stress of renting issues and getting forced out of an area. Enjoy settling in!

  12. I am so happy for you and yours!

  13. Wow,good news,congrats! Good luck with the nesting process!


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