He Won the Lottery for an Affordable Apartment, After Years of Trying

In the fall of 2013, Josh Bianchi was living in a nine-by-ten-foot room in an unheated rehearsal studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, when the city condemned the building. He’d found the place on Craigslist, for $650 a month, and knew the situation wasn’t exactly legal: When he signed his lease, his landlord wrote “art studio” on each page, even after making it clear to Mr. Bianchi that people were living there full time. He lived next to a woman named Orion who had recently given up her pet rooster after the other tenants complained about the noise.

Conveniently, the building was a short walk from the bar where he worked until 4 in the morning a few nights a week. It wasn’t his dream home, but it was an affordable place where he could lock a door and be alone. Plus, it allowed him to stay in the city he loved. “It was how I held onto the ground in New York,” Mr. Bianchi said.

After the city left a sign at the building’s entrance stating that all of the tenants had two days to evacuate, Mr. Bianchi panicked. He and a few other tenants approached the Red Cross’s Emergency Family Shelter, a program that primarily serves unhoused mothers and children, and offered to put some of them up in a hotel for two nights; instead, Mr. Bianchi crashed on couches.

One night, while Mr. Bianchi was working at the bar, a friend told him about an article on the website Gothamist about Housing Connect, an online portal launched in 2013 that allows New Yorkers to apply for affordable housing lotteries. The idea sparkled in his head like a golden ticket. After finding a new apartment (also without heat) with another former tenant of the recording studio, for $1,650 a month, Mr. Bianchi created a profile on the website, and began applying for apartments.

While Mr. Bianchi is no longer trawling Craigslist for apartments, he still uses it to source his furniture — like this couch, which he purchased from a couple in Park SlopeCredit…Tom Sibley for The New York Times

Over the last eight years, Mr. Bianchi has applied for countless apartments on Housing Connect, and visited an estimated 14 places for in-person inspections. The units ran the gamut, from unappealing shoe boxes to barely-affordable apartments in new-construction buildings.

According to the HPD, over 45,500 units have been made available between 2014 and 2021; many are subsidized units within newer-construction buildings, according to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which operates the lottery. Over half a million New Yorkers are currently registered on Housing Connect, and eligibility for each lottery is determined by the applicant’s assets and their income relative to the area median income.

Mr. Bianchi, who grew up in St. Clair Shores, Mich., had dreamed of moving to New York since visiting with a choir group in the fourth grade. “It was sort of all I talked about in high school,” he remembered with a laugh. “I really wanted to come out of the closet,” which seemed far easier to do in New York than in Michigan. He finally moved to New York in 2011, to attend Marymount Manhattan College.

“I had all these ideas about how cool it would be,” Mr. Bianchi said. “And it was cool. I felt as unselfconscious as I thought I would when I was 10, thinking, ‘I can live in New York and be so strange!’ I’m a little bit less strange now, but when I came here at 19, I was a free bird.”

Mr. Bianchi has enjoyed having a spacious kitchen to outfit. He has stocked up on cutting boards, and his boyfriend bought him a microwave as a housewarming gift. Credit…Tom Sibley for The New York Times

$2,300 | Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn

Josh Bianchi, 30

Occupation: Content operations associate at Gimlet Media

His second living room: “I’m across the street from Doris, the bar, so I’ll invite people over to see the apartment, and then go to Doris and have a drink.”

The flip-side of Housing Connect: “It can make you feel a bit evil. If you tell your friends about the lottery and they get a place, you’re happy for them, but then there’s one fewer of these extremely rare rent-stabilized places.”

As he moved through college, eventually transferring to City College, he lived in cheap apartments, mostly in Bushwick, that he found on Craigslist. Then, for three years, he lived with a partner in Brooklyn Heights, where they split the $2,200 a month rent. But even that apartment felt precarious in its own way: “I always felt happy that things were going well,” he said, “but I would get so anxious about rent hikes or unforeseen circumstances or emergencies that would knock me back to a nine-by-ten room in an unheated building.”

After he and his partner split during the pandemic, Mr. Bianchi sublet a room in a friend’s apartment for $835 a month, but dreamed of once again living alone. He briefly considered moving upstate, but decided against it. The thing that has kept him in New York City, he said, is that “here, you can keep dreaming.”

Finally, last August, he found a rent-stabilized, $1,400-a-month studio apartment in Williamsburg that overlooked the JMZ subway tracks. It was so close to the train platform, he said, “I got to wave to my neighbors while they made their way to work.” The train regularly woke him up at odd hours. While it felt like a success to find a place where he could afford to live alone, and he got along well with his neighbors, he still dreamed of something a little less rattling. That same month, he moved from a job at the BBC as a digital content coordinator to a higher paying job as a content operations associate at Gimlet Media — or, as he calls it, a “podcast handyman.”

In December 2021, Mr. Bianchi applied for another apartment through Housing Connect: a one-bedroom renting for $2,300 a month in a new-construction building in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which he could now afford. In January, he received an email saying he had qualified to take part in the lottery, and could visit the apartment. He also had to submit pay stubs, bank statements, and proof that he’d been living in New York for at least six months.

At the showing, “I was supposed to pull out my phone to check the cell service, or check the water pressure, that sort of thing,” Mr. Bianchi remembered. “But I was blown away because it had a balcony and a washer-dryer. I didn’t care what the situation was, I went home and sent in an application.”

The apartment building sits on a busy stretch of Fulton Street, but the windows are double-paned, Mr. Bianchi said. Compared to his last apartment, which overlooked the subway, “this feels like a quiet country house.”Credit…Tom Sibley for The New York Times

Two weeks later, he found out he had gotten the apartment. His landlord in Williamsburg told him he could break his lease if he was able to find a new tenant, and he found someone through a Slack channel at his work dedicated to the New York housing search. Luckily, she was a heavy sleeper.

Moving into his new apartment has afforded Mr. Bianchi the peace and security he has been searching for through eight years of Housing Connect lotteries. Like his old apartment, the new apartment is rent-stabilized, so while he could face rent increases, they are based on approvals by the city’s Rent Guidelines Board. “It soothes so many of my anxieties, to hang up pictures without worrying that in six months I’ll have to leave my apartment,” Mr. Bianchi said. “This is a home that my parents can come visit, where I can make dinner for someone. It’s my bright little sanctuary.” His plants are loving the ample light from the large south-facing windows, and he has finally been able to build shelves to house his collection of books.

While moving to New York was a fulfillment of a childhood dream, this apartment has fulfilled a more recent one. When he was living in an unheated apartment in Bushwick, “I would stare at these new apartment buildings in the neighborhood being like, ‘Who lives there? How is anyone living there?’” Mr. Bianchi remembered. “And I just wished so much that I could live in one of those glass block apartments. I always felt like, ‘I wish someone would ask me to live in one of those.’”

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