“Ink Block Rental Lottery,” the sign out front read. “Please do NOT ring the doorbell. Just open the door and drop your application inside.”
One by one they came to the small office in Brighton. An architect. A schoolteacher. A videographer. Hundreds in all. They held oversized envelopes — and dreams of living in one of Boston’s gleaming new luxury buildings.
But on workaday salaries.
Apartments at the Ink Block and other high-end developments go for thousands of dollars a month — even the studios. But thanks to a city housing program, a lucky few can qualify to live large, at a much lower price. All they have to do is win a little-known city lottery.
Nearly 15 years old, Boston’s inclusionary development policy has created 1,163 affordable on-site condos and apartments in some of Boston’s most luxurious buildings, including the Mandarin Oriental. An additional 555 units have been approved or are under construction. Most people have no idea that a few moderate earners live in these buildings. Or that winning a spot starts with having your name drawn out of a box, the housing version of Mega Millions.
Some hit it their first time; others never do. Saul Flambury, a waiter with two young kids and wife packed into one bedroom in West Roxbury, is on something like his seventh try, both in Boston and the suburbs.
“Boston is really unaffordable,” he said, glancing at his application for the Ink Block. “We’re going to be fantasizing.”
At the Residences at Mandarin Oriental, where the market-rate units go for as much as $17,000 a month, a tenant in one of the building’s 10 affordable apartments says that even after years of living there, she’s still astonished when the concierge opens the car door for her.
“They’ll do anything for you,” she said.
The Mandarin’s affordable units, which rent for $1,365-$2,340 per month, come with other pluses, including high-end appliances and tight security. “No one can even get up in the elevator,” said the tenant, who asked not to be named.
(The market-rate and affordable apartments in the Mandarin are being sold but, because of deed restrictions, the affordable units will remain so for 40 years from the date of the original 2005 agreement.)
The city’s policy requires developers of residential projects with 10 or more units to make at least 15 percent of those units “affordable” — or contribute $200,000 per unit to a city housing fund, or some combination.
In Boston, a single renter could earn up to $46,100, for example, and a family of four up to $65,850. A single person who wants to buy an on-site affordable condo could earn as much as $65,850, and a family of four up to $94,100.
With luxury towers throwing shadows all around town, and moderate earners often priced out, Mayor Martin J. Walsh has said he wants to increase the city’s stock of middle-income housing. Toward that goal, the city is considering changes that could require developers to pay more to cash out of the inclusionary policy, to build more on-site units, or both, spokeswoman Melina Schuler said.
‘People are asking you to put down first month’s rent, last month’s rent, a security deposit, and a rental agent’s fee. That’s almost $5,000.’ --James Eddy , who applied for affordable housing in the Ink Block
Already, moderate earners are living among, if not quite like, the city’s wealthier residents. With its stunning roof deck and trendy Fort Point location, 315 on A has 22 affordable units, according to city records. There are 36 affordable apartments and one affordable condo in The Clarendon, a high-rise with a doorman and a concierge. The 28-story Avalon Exeter, with its cozy lobby fireplace, has six affordable apartments (with 18 financed off-site).
New buildings like Twenty Two Liberty and Pier 4 in the city’s hot Seaport District will also have affordable units. Under city guidelines, all must be “be comparable in size and quality to the market-rate units being produced.”
In the South End, the swanky Ink Block is a sign of the changing Boston. It’s on a site vacated by the Boston Herald, in a part of the neighborhood where $1,000 was what people paid for cars, not strollers.
When the 315-apartment, 77-condo development opens next year, most of the tenants will be people who can afford studio apartments that start at $2,529 per month, or one-bedroom condos that have so far averaged $640,000. An on-site Whole Foods doesn’t come cheap.
But with rents for the affordable units starting at $1,020 per month (one-bedroom condos are currently priced at $162,500), this month hundreds of people showed up at the Brighton offices of the firm running the housing lottery.
It was 3:58 p.m. on Tuesday — two minutes before the deadline — when Caroline Braxter pulled up to the offices of SEB. She lives with a friend, but her mother can no longer care for herself, and Braxter needs to find a place for them to share.
Mike Scarlata was hoping to be chosen, too. He left a job in finance to follow his dream of teaching history, and in the process, moved from a newly renovated apartment in the South End to a shared rental in Brighton. “I’m glad I made the decision,” he said. “But I’m 38. I’d like to live on my own.”
Some 500 people applied for one of the 41 affordable Ink Block apartments — a record, said Brian Engler, a vice president at SEB.
The name and number of each approved applicant goes on an index card and is drawn out of a box by a staffer at the Boston Fair Housing Commission, or another designated city staffer. These lotteries take place at various locations — City Hall, a community center, or on the site of the property.
Sometimes just a few people come to watch, although JoAnn Cox, the commission’s affirmative marketing specialist, says that anyone can attend. The agency says it monitors the entire process.
To qualify to rent an affordable unit created by the inclusionary development policy, a person typically needs to earn less than or equal to 70 percent of the median income in the area. For affordable condos, half of the units are made available to households earning less than 80 percent of area median income, and the other half are made available to households earning between 80 and 100 percent of area median income.
Nick Martin, director of communications with the Boston Redevelopment Authority, says the city checks at several different points to ensure that affordable condos and apartments are spread throughout the new buildings. The goal is to avoid situations like the one that incited a backlash in New York City this year.
There, a developer made news when he successfully sought permission for separate entrances for the market rate and the affordable units. As the New York Post put it: “City OKs . . . ‘poor door.’ ”
A similar scandal hasn’t broken out here, but there has been controversy. In 2013, a Globe investigation found that the Boston Redevelopment Authority was cutting deals at the expense of affordable housing, and that the agency collected far less than it should have if it had followed the rules.
Earlier this year, an audit ordered by Walsh found that the BRA didn’t collect millions of dollars in lease payments and fees owed by developers for affordable housing. The housing funds are now administered by a different city agency, the Department of Neighborhood Development.
Ted Tye, managing partner of Newton-based National Development, which is developing Ink Block, says building affordable condos can be a challenge. Financing can be more difficult, and the units are less likely to meet the city’s long-term housing goals than affordable apartments or cash contributions, he said.
“You can have a 23-year-old who buys an affordable condo and then gets promoted, starts to earn more money, has a family, and wants to move out,” he said. “The sale is deed restricted” — to a qualified buyer — “but that is difficult to track over time.” (Affordable condos are required to remain affordable from 50 years from the date of the original affordable housing agreement, as are most affordable rentals.)
Meanwhile, as high-end buildings tout their amenities, moderate earners say they are frustrated trying to find a place — anyplace — in the city.
“People are asking you to put down first month’s rent, last month’s rent, a security deposit, and a rental agent’s fee,” said James Eddy, 27, a community field coordinator for the Boston Public Schools, who was applying to live in the Ink Block.
Eddy and his girlfriend have been looking for a while, but even in outlying neighborhoods, he said, renting requires a big upfront payment. He unhappily did the math on a $1,200-per-month apartment. “That’s almost $5,000 — it’s like a down payment on a house.”