Syed Ali, MUP 2019
Organization: New York City Dept. of Housing Preservation and Community Development, New York, NY
Sponsor: Joint Center for Housing Studies Community Service Fellowship
““HOUSING NEW YORK,” the banners scream in capital letters. Walking around New York City, you see these blue and white signs hanging on scaffolding in front of new construction. The signs promote the Mayor’s signature housing plan and bear the logo of the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). These buildings contain at least some new affordable housing units, which are part of the mythical affordable housing lottery that is a luckier draw than most actual lotto tickets. When New Yorkers think of affordable housing, they think of the struggling public housing authority (NYCHA) or of these newly constructed units. Note, however, that development is only one half of the equation in HPD’s name. As the agency marches on towards an ambitious goal of 300,000 units of affordable housing by 2026, two-thirds of the units achieved so far have been through preservation. No banners hang in front of buildings with preserved affordable housing, but they are fundamental to keeping New Yorkers in their homes as costs of living continue to rise.
When cash-strapped landlords need to make improvements to their buildings, they turn to HPD as a lender of last resort. HPD is happy to provide financing with generous terms, but it comes with strings: The property owners must agree to offer rents affordable to designated Area Median Income (AMI) bands. While many of the agency’s programs are geared toward larger buildings where they can maximize impact, some are geared towards small and medium-sized buildings. Owners of smaller properties, however, are mostly unaware that these programs are available to them. They are usually not professional property managers and may own only one or a few properties.
This has equity implications. Take Bedford-Stuyvesant, a historically African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn made up of largely of 1-4 family brownstone homes. Many of the properties are owner-occupied. Brooklyn’s rapid development has dramatically increased the value of their homes, but the owners are often not wealthy themselves. They are what many describe as “house rich, cash poor.” The neighborhood has seen tremendous gentrification, with an increase of over 1,000% in the population of non-Hispanic whites since 2000. By providing its generous financing terms for repairs to these homeowners, HPD can not only preserve affordability for renters but can also build community wealth.
Small property owners do not take advantage of these programs because they do not know about them. While HPD wrangled multiple preservation loan programs into a unified marketing campaign called Let’s Invest, the process of applying remained confusing and decentralized.
This summer, the Neighborhood Planning team worked with the Preservation Finance team to consolidate application materials and clarify the preservation process to make it easier for small property owners. We pulled together information on different programs, crafted definitions for relevant terms, and produced streamlined content. One of my primary responsibilities was to design the documents themselves. HPD does not have strict document design guidelines, but we adopted the aesthetic of the initial marketing campaign for our new materials. By creating a standard package for the property owners’ user journey, we hope that participation will increase and user experience will improve.
Here are examples of the raw content I was given and how I translated it into templates for clear communication:
Case studies feature narrative descriptions, photos, and quotes from real people who have benefitted from our preservation finance programs. The back of the single sheet includes details such as the name of the program applied, the financing terms, and the affordability bands.
The glossary defines the more technical terms that may come up in the loan process but whose meanings may not be obvious to property owners. Color coding and icons reflect the relevant program. A one-page callout section on loans could be used as an independent handout.
The timeline and checklist documents are necessarily complex, but we eventually made progress on making the stages of the process more consistent. Letting borrowers know what to expect helps them to prepare so that the process can move as quickly as possible.
The process of streamlining was complex, and like many projects, not complete by the time my internship ended. We made considerable progress, however, and I am sure my colleagues will further improve upon what we built together so far.