By Sabina Mollot
On Friday, March 31, Nichole Levin, an elementary school teacher and Peter Cooper Village native, got the phone call she’d been waiting for over a year. Her application to the Stuyvesant Town lottery for reduced rent apartments had been accepted. In fact, she was told, she could move in right away, and the apartment was in the same building in Peter Cooper Village as her mother’s home.
The news came as a happy ending to what was a somewhat stressful process, due to the wait — she’d even had to extend her current lease in Tudor City by a month while sorting out a paperwork issue.
Levin, 41, has since spoke with Town & Village about her experience, and has also since moved in (on Monday).
It was last March when the lottery opened for the first time, inviting those with incomes no higher than 165 percent of the area median income as well as those earning no more than 80 percent of the AMI to apply. Levin, who teaches English as a Second Language, had an income that made her eligible for apartments for renters in the upper income tier. Last March, this was $74,850-$99,825 for a single person seeking a studio or one-bedroom. It wasn’t until September, however, that she was contacted for a routine credit check.
“I thought perfect; I’d get an apartment when my lease is up in March,” she said.
She was then asked by lottery administrators for information on her income, which she said she submitted, although over time, she’d be occasionally contacted with requests for additional documents, with the explanation that her application papers were incomplete. Another time she was asked to resubmit a document. One long-running obstacle revolved around two dividend checks from stocks Levin owned that she’d received that year, although she said together they didn’t even come to $100. She said she’d sent in paperwork from when she received the funds, which were last November, but was then asked for something more recent. The company only provided her with a statement once a year, which she explained.
However, Levin said when she failed to produce the requested paperwork last month, her application was pulled.
Wasting no time, Levin and her mother Marilyn made a series of frantic phone calls, and contacted the company, Allstate, to request a more current statement. At that point, she was able to get back in the queue.
“I got a nice person who reactivated my application,” said Levin. As for those stringent income verifications, Levin said she was told they were necessary since some applicants were attempting to hide assets.
But, while back in the running, Levin still felt she had reason to be worried. She recalled how, 10 years ago, she’d entered a different housing lottery for apartments at East Midtown Plaza. After being contacted and even being shown an apartment, she was then told by the agency overseeing the lottery that she was slightly over the income limit and didn’t qualify. She’d known this from the beginning but had nevertheless gotten the impression that her salary was close enough to the income cap not to matter.
This time however, a day after submitting the last of the income related paperwork, Levin was contacted by someone at the Stuy Town leasing office who told her an apartment was available. So, said Levin, “It had a good end.”
Asked about Levin’s lengthy application process, a spokesperson for The Blackstone Group noted that the requirements for the lottery, including those on timing, come from the Housing Development Corporation, not the owner. Having all paperwork ready to go, the spokesperson, Paula Chirhart, said, generally helps to speed the process along.
Chirhart added, “We are very excited to have Nichole Levin become part of the Peter Cooper Stuy Town community and welcome her to the property.”
Meanwhile, when signing her lease, Levin admitted to being caught off guard by all the changes in the community since she’d moved out. In particular, she noted the warm welcome she received at the leasing office.
“Even though I’m a lottery person, they didn’t treat me any less,” she said. “They were really fabulous, really happy for me. ‘Welcome to the neighborhood, we’re here to service all your needs.’ It wasn’t like that at all growing up. It was a good place to live, but now it’s like a fancy hotel. I feel like I purchased a timeshare.”
Levin is now living one floor below her mother, which she said wasn’t planned.
“They had no idea,” said Nichole, about the close proximity to her childhood home.
The day she signed her lease, she reconnected with people she knew when growing up in the complex, including a family whose children she’d babysat for. While riding the elevator, she shared her good news with a soon to be neighbor, only to hear her say she already knew. “Word travels fast,” said Levin, whose return home is coming nearly two decades after leaving. She’d lived in the community until the age of 23, except during her college years.
Ironically, the return home to one of the 5,000 apartments to be preserved in a deal touted by the mayor as “affordable” hasn’t come without a price.
Levin’s rent for a one-bedroom apartment, after signing a two-year lease, is $2,900 a month, including surcharges for her two air conditioners. The rent is naturally higher than what she’d been paying for a studio a mile north.
But, as Levin explained it, “Once you grow up here you know what it’s like to live in Manhattan. I grew up with a park. You don’t get that in Manhattan if you’re on a budget. So I really wanted to be back but I don’t know if I can afford it. It’s going to be a stretch. I’m going to have to give up a lot of things. It’s not affordable, but I want to make it work.”
Levin added she believes the cost for her own apartment will eventually be more manageable.
“Once you’re in, you’re grandfathered in,” she said. “As my salary increases it gets more affordable.”
When she’d applied she thought her rent was going to be around $2,673. When she asked about this, she was told the prior figure was based on the previous year’s AMI. But she isn’t complaining, especially since she’s back in Peter Cooper, which she feels makes the rent a better deal. She also now has a lot of closet space, and will no longer have to rent a storage unit. Upon moving in, she received a Stuy Town logo-covered gift bag from management, which included household items like slippers and paper towels.
“Moving is nerve-racking but it’s familiar,” Levin said. “I know the whole floor. It feels like going home.”
While there’s been plenty of debate as to the affordability of the lottery units, they are still a deal compared to the market rate ones. A one-bedroom in Stuyvesant Town, as of this week, starts at $3,036, not including air conditioner surcharges. A one-bedroom in Peter Cooper Village starts at $3,518 not including AC surcharges, according to the property’s online listings.