A Rejected Artist in NYC: Who Really Wins Affordable Housing Lotteries?

Feb 5, 2015
9:54 AM

I am one of hundreds of East Harlem artists denied housing at Artspace PS109.

The Promise

In the summer of 2014, 53,000+ people applied to live in 89 affordable apartments at Artspace PS109. This has become an all too common scene in New York City’s housing market. Decades of public subsidies and assistance for luxury development in NYC have increased property values and rents all across the city. This rise has led to the displacement of working- and middle-class families. The main “community benefit” in return for publicly assisted displacement has been the opportunity to enter an affordable housing lottery and hope Yolanda Vega calls your number, allowing you to remain. Mayor Bill de Blasio has continued along the same path, pushing for taller and denser private developments in working-class communities of color and offering 80,000 “affordable” lottery tickets in exchange.

In his State of the City address, the mayor also promised to include 1,500 new affordable live-work spaces for New York City artists by 2024 as part of his 80,000 “affordable” unit pledge. East Harlem, one of the neighborhoods the mayor has targeted for rezoning, has just completed an affordable housing complex for artists: PS109.

The Artistic Soul of a Community

Over 500 East Harlem artists have spent from five months to a decade hoping and praying they’d win an affordable Artspace apartment. To date, hundreds of El Barrio artists have been rejected, many never even heard back on the status of their application.

In the shell of an abandoned public school, Artspace, thanks to much government help, is about to become (by far) the best funded art institution in East Harlem. While only requiring 50% of apartments go to East Harlem artists, it has already begun to play a major role in what messages are sent out from —and on behalf of— the community. Which artists and community groups have access to new space, top donors and which do not?

Workers put final touches on new Art Space.

Workers put final touches on new Art Space.


The McDonald’s of Affordable Housing for Artists Comes to El Barrio

When I first got wind of Artspace three years ago, instead of trying to be one of the lucky few to win a lottery, I spent two years trying get on the “artist panel” that would decide who would get into the building. Here I thought would be the real decision-making power. I wouldn’t be able to bid for an apartment, but I’d be able to help other East Harlem artists get in and report on the selection process from the inside. Unfortunately, that never happened.

Every time I asked about how to get on the artist panel, it became clear I’d brought up a very uncomfortable topic of conversation. Public meeting after public meeting, Artspace’s Vice President of Asset Management Bill Mague and Asset Manager Naomi Marx brushed off the same question by telling me, “a representative body of artists from the community will decide who gets into Artspace” and “sign up for the email list.” I was beginning to lose hope of ever getting an answer.

In 2013 El Museo Del Barrio decided to screen my film El Barrio Tours: Gentrification in East Harlem and invite Shawn McLearen, Artspace’s Vice President for Property Development, to join our conversation.

I thought I’d finally find out how to get on the “community artist panel.” Unfortunately, Shawn canceled just hours before the screening. When I asked El Museo director Gonzalo Casals why, he looked frustratingly at me and said, “You know why.” I didn’t know what that meant, but we weren’t on great terms ourselves. Community pressure had recently pushed El Museo to screen my film, something El Museo’s program director denied in 2012 stating El Barrio Tours “didn’t talk enough about the good of gentrification.

The information for applying to be on a “community” artist panel never arrived.

I Applied

After my failed attempts to join the panel, I decided to apply for an apartment at PS 109. If I got in, I could do my part to ensure its huge amount of resources actually went to the community. Whether I got in or not, I’d be able to shine a light on the application process. Not to mention, since quitting my job as a paralegal to screen El Barrio Tours across the country and create a piece on displacement nationwide, I’d been sleeping on my parents’ couch. A studio in my community at $494 would be dope.

I Was Selected for Interview

After my number was called in August 2014, I was surprised. I met the income guidelines, but I never thought I’d actually have a shot. Getting an affordable apartment in NYC is nothing short of winning the lottery, and I had one of the lowest lottery numbers—119 out of over 53,000 applicants. Given my record as an artist born and raised in East Harlem (whose family has been here since the 1950’s), El Barrio Operation Fight Back (EBOFB), Artspace’s community partner and co-developer, assured me, “You’re exactly the type of artist we want in this building.” If I had a dollar for each time I heard this over the past three years, I wouldn’t be applying for affordable housing.

“You’re Exactly the Type of Artist We Want in This Building”

After reviewing the Artspace checklist, I realized they didn’t want my artist portfolio. Instead, they needed my financial statements. A lot of them. Tax statements, bank statements, copies of every check I’d received working at universities, every screening fee, DVD sold, etc. No piece of financial information was too small.

Me: “Do you need my blood too?” I asked.

PS109 Property Manager : “I know it’s a lot of documentation, but we have to approve your financials first before you have your artist interview. Don’t worry, you’re the type of person this project was designed for.

In total, it took three months and over 10 trips to the EBOFB office to get all of the financials Artspace needed. As November arrived and my birthday neared, I finally received word:

PS109 Property Manager: “We approved you, Artspace approved you, our auditors approved you, we just are waiting on HPD. But Andrew, you’re in, we can’t say that you’re in, but all that’s left is your artist interview and “You’re exactly the type of artist we want in this building!” Get your portfolio ready, the artist interviews will begin next week!

My Artist Interview: 10 Minutes

Being an artist in this process mattered for a total of 10 minutes, if that. But I didn’t care. I recognized the two community members on the artist panel and felt relieved. I realized, despite holding multiple photo shows, screening across the country and raising money for a nationwide documentary, no one had ever asked me to share my portfolio before. I’d never been given the opportunity or the time to look at all I’d created and present my career as an artist.

I ended with a trailer for my nationwide project on displacement in America.

They all agreed.

“You’re exactly the type of artist we want in this building. We just have to wait for HPD.”

I’d heard it all before… but this time was different. I felt proud, accomplished and after walking the halls of the newly finished building, I for the first time thought, hey, I might get in here.

Three Weeks Later I Was Rejected

HPD (Housing Preservation and Development) gave the following reasons:

  • $1,500 below income
  • Six weeks away from meeting the two-year requirement for being a self-employed artist. (Since the rejection two months ago, I now meet the two-year time test for being a self-employed artist.)

Three Years of Misinformation

I was angry.

In the three years of information sessions and public ads Artspace and Operation Fight Back ran, they stated said artists would be judged on their gross income. It wasn’t until late November of 2014 that Fight Back admitted qualifying income for self-employed artists would be calculated after taxes and expenses. Self-employed artists had to prove a higher income than artists with traditional income, and traditionally employed artists didn’t even have to make their main income from art. This made little to no sense for an Artspace in El Barrio, considering how many artists were self-employed, and that 80% of US artists that make their main income from art, are white males.

Despite all this, I couldn’t help but feel hopeful. While routinely working at low or no cost for underfunded schools and grassroots community organizations, my hourly rate at large institutions like Harvard is higher than the $494 a month I’d have been expected to pay at Artspace.

I knew from visiting Artspace’s home town of Minneapolis in 2014, that out of 30+ Artspaces across the country, the vast majority of their resident artists were not people of color. But this project was advertised to be different. I felt my history in El Barrio and success as an artist from it could and should carry me through. So I appealed.

The Appeal

The night I sent in the appeal I had a dream…
I got an apartment
That Artspace apartment
But somehow, the whole community had gotten in
I had a room for my bed
A living room
A separate kitchen
I had a view
Sun scorched the air so bright
Floating dust looked magical
It was beautiful
I felt normal again
I thought…I could create here
Then I woke up

Four weeks into my appeal I asked Gus Rosado, Executive Director of Operation Fight Back, why HPD wouldn’t accept applicants that they, the community developer, had already approved. He responded:

As the neighborhood organization we don’t have the power to say, “This artist is in.” We don’t approve applicants, we simply suggest they be approved. HPD makes the final decision. When you use other people’s money, it comes with strings. You lose control.

The timing of your email to HPD officials is good since very recent exchanges have been had on your behalf. If you have any influential or political backing, now is the time to have them advocate on your behalf.

Eight weeks of Silence

It’s been eight weeks since I appealed and still no word from HPD or Artspace. Only Operation Fight Back has contacted me. They said HPD rejected me again, but have yet to show me the forms they sent advocating “on my behalf” to HPD.

We hired an auditor, a nationwide expert, out of our own pocket, to review our files after we had. We wanted her to make sure that neighborhood people met HPD standards. But it ended up being a waste. She (the auditor) said the level of scrutiny HPD put our files under, to see if applicants could pay $494 dollars in rent, was higher than any she’d seen in the country.
—Gus Rosado, Executive Director of Operation Fight Back

This was kinda like a forced marriage. When Artspace wanted to come here 10 years ago, people were pissed, it was then that they were forced to make a community partner. That’s where Operation Fight Back came in. This is how gentrification works. I just can’t help but feel like this project never would have happened, had we never helped…
—Property Manager, El Barrio’s Artspace PS109

The Struggle Is Real, The Spin Is Not

In the coming weeks, you will hear testimonials from artists whom this project saved from couches, substandard living conditions and the intense strain that living in NYC places on us all. The struggle is real and no artist should be attacked for escaping it.

But you may also hear an attempt to blame the individual artist for why Artspace is not 100% or maybe even 50% El Barrio residents, as was repeatedly pledged and promised at community meetings.

Things like:

We tried to find artists in El Barrio, but so many had left already.
Artists applied late.
We just couldn’t find enough qualified applicants.

This could not be further from the truth.

More than 500 artists from East Harlem applied for 89 seats. If less than one out of five East Harlem artists were accepted, the space would be 100% East Harlem artists.

Why did local elected officials, Operation Fight Back and Artspace, hold badly run “information sessions” blindly guiding El Barrio applicants to meet HPD’s draconian financial standards, instead of working to change them?

Was Artspace Meant to Prevent Gentrification in East Harlem, or Promote it?

Artspace will preserve a small number of the artists that made El Barrio what it is today (and add a bunch of new ones),but will Artspace collaborate with residents to fight displacement? Or work to promote El Barrio as a “destination,”, holding art crawls and further fueling land values in a community where 93% of residents rent?

Mike Bloomberg’s 2013 plan to build luxury apt buildings on public housing land coincidentally singled out two NYCHA lots surrounding Artspace.

Will Artspace artists use their privilege to help fight speculators from descending on El Barrio? Or will they act as “community partners” for outside development?

Will projects like Artspace in El Barrio trickle out into communities of color facing gentrification throughout the country?

Rejected and Want to Speak Out?

Marina Ortiz at East Harlem Preservation is currently compiling a list of rejected East Harlem artists for profiles. She would love your input. If you or someone you know is a long-time artist in El Barrio that was rejected from Artspace please reach out to her at: marina@eastharlempreservation.org


Andrew J. Padilla is a Puerto Rican artist, educator and independent journalist from East Harlem trying to give a voice to NYC’s working class. You can follow Andrew @apadillafilm6 and learn more about him on AndrewJPadilla.com.