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Making too little to get affordable housing — and other problems with trying to stay in Boston

As the cost of living drives friends out of the city, I’m eyeing apartment applications with a creeping sense of hopelessness.

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There are three reasons I’ve been able to keep living in Boston, and each of them is a landlord with a rare below-market apartment. Over the last decade, various roommates and I have watched from the temporary safety of these apartments as people we love have been priced out of Boston, leaving the city for distant ZIP codes where a rent or mortgage payment won’t leave a nuclear crater in your bank statement. By now, it’s well known that Boston has some of the most severe housing costs in the nation — 51 percent higher than the national average. But what’s become more apparent in recent years is how far that shockwave has traveled, and who it’s affecting.

As a mid-30s journalist and urban trail builder with civic loyalty to Boston and a modest income, I belong to one of the demographics that usually gets booted from expensive cities in the earlier waves of displacement: artists and creatives. But many others are now also concerned about staying in Boston, including city employees. Even those who own homes are increasingly vulnerable. With wage growth trailing housing costs, Boston is estimated to have lost 145,000 low- and middle-income homeowners between 2010 and 2020.

Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a very high income or the cushion of familial wealth, it’s exceedingly difficult to rent in Boston without wondering when the other shoe will drop — when the rent will become so damn high that you’ll have no choice but to leave. The median rent on a one-bedroom apartment in Boston is $2,700 a month, up from about $1,260 in 2013.

Last fall, after losing yet another contingent of friends and colleagues to places elsewhere, such as the Pioneer Valley, Providence, and Philadelphia, I knew it was time to create a Plan B for the inevitable turning point when I will have to find another apartment or another city. A down payment seemed out of the question on my income, even with $50,000 in state assistance. Waitlists for public housing and nonprofit-owned housing are notoriously long, spiraling out into increments of years. And having reported on housing for magazines and newspapers, I had heard too many horror stories of landlords mistreating Section 8 voucher applicants to pin my hopes on that waitlist. This left one last option that offered a glimmer of possibility: inclusionary development policy housing.

“IDP units” are something that most of us know by a much broader term: “affordable housing.” These are the income-restricted apartments baked into new market-rate buildings, distributed by lottery or by a first-come, first-served application process with a waitlist. For better or worse, IDP apartments have become the backbone of our approach to creating more affordable housing in Boston. More of them will be materializing soon. Right now, Boston developers seeking zoning relief have to set aside 13 percent of a rental project as affordable housing. Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration is trying to increase that proportion to 20 percent. Knowing that more of these units would come online in the years ahead, I decided to set my sights on the process of qualifying for one. I wanted to know, What does it take to actually get affordable housing in Boston?

The short answer — paperwork, persistence, a lot of luck, and, quite often, a comfortable income.

When the City of Boston describes affordable housing as income-restricted, it’s not kidding. The rents for income-restricted units are based on percentages of Boston’s Area Median Income (AMI), a figure that takes into account the much higher median incomes in places like Newton, Brookline, and Cambridge. The Boston Planning and Development Agency currently has the AMI for a one-person household clocked at $98,150. So that means, for example, a unit set aside for one person at 30 percent AMI can only go to someone making less than $29,450; qualifying for a unit set at 60 percent AMI would require an income less than $58,900.

At this housing complex being built on Columbus Avenue in Jackson Square, some units are being set aside for people who earn less than 30 percent of the area median income (AMI) and others are for people earning less than 60 percent of the AMI.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

However, fixed numbers of units are held for people at various AMI tiers. In other words, someone at 40 percent AMI can be ineligible for a unit designated for 60 percent AMI. And that ends up meaning that applicants for affordable housing have to contend with not only maximum income limits but also minimum income thresholds that the BPDA allows developments to impose. In theory, this is to ensure that affordable housing stock can be available to applicants at varying levels of Boston’s AMI ladder. One in five apartments in Boston is income-restricted, the highest such percentage in the country. Nonetheless, in my first month of searching Boston’s Metrolist for buildings with open applications and lotteries, most of the apartments I found were for applicants earning 60 percent or more of the AMI, with minimum income requirements that effectively disqualified me.

Paradoxically, I wasn’t making enough money to apply for available affordable housing.

Sarah Iwany, an Allston-Brighton resident and former city council candidate, ran into the same hurdle when searching for affordable apartments last year. “I thought going through the city’s affordable housing lottery would be more successful than sifting through market-rate apartments in varying conditions,” Iwany says. Eventually, she did find a few studios and one-bedroom units ― rental and homeownership opportunities — for which she appeared to qualify. Iwany began the “arduous” application process, rustling up pay stubs, two years of tax returns and attachments, bank statements, and documents proving Boston residency. “It would be fine if you could submit all your documentation and be put on a list for future affordable housing listings, but that’s not how it works,” Iwany says. “You have to repeat the process for every property.”

Streamlining the application process for affordable units is an idea that Somerville is currently looking at, which could save housing hopefuls a lot of time and frustration. But the burden of applying for IDP units isn’t just administrative. As with food support, health care, and other resources set aside for lower-income people, the qualifying process is frustrating and demoralizing. When Jennifer Pino, a librarian, threw her name in the hat for an affordable unit in East Boston, she was surprised to receive a notice that her housing application had been eliminated due to a missing document. Pino was able to get her application out of the trash bin by quickly responding with proof that she had submitted the “missing” document. But running into the extremely low margin of error for affordable housing applicants left her troubled. “What would have happened if I wasn’t the type of person who is hyper-organized by trade and very on top of this stuff?” Pino says. “Or if I hadn’t seen that email?”

The sensation of being on a short leash as an affordable housing seeker doesn’t just apply to the application process. It can carry over to those who actually have the good fortune of drawing winning lottery numbers or getting on housing waitlists at the right moment. Christine Varriale, an editor and marketing manager in Allston, has lived in two IDP units for almost a decade. And each year, Varriale has completed a recertification process to prove that she’s still within the qualifying income range for renting her apartment. “Some years have been easier than others, because my management company has passed off the process to an affordable housing expert,” Varriale says. But the look-back process can be strikingly zealous. “Any transaction I had going into or out of my bank account that was $100 or over, and not my paycheck, I had to explain what that transaction was,” Varialle says. “That includes things like Venmo transactions.”

A rally held by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization on March 16 urged state officials "to face the housing crisis head-on." Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Still, in the grand scheme of affordable housing in Boston, Varriale is one of the lucky ones. Pino got close enough to the top of a waitlist to tour an apartment, but she lost it to a couple who was ahead of her. Iwany was assigned lottery numbers of 243, 735, and 3,916. That meant the best-case scenario for her would involve 242 people ahead of her touring an IDP unit and declining it. Going through a long, cumbersome process for this outcome left Iwany feeling “absolutely hopeless.”

Thus far, I haven’t come close to wading this deep into the murky waters of affordable housing applications. I’ve yet to hear a peep back from management companies about the few waitlists and lotteries that I have been able to register for. But still, knowing the competition and hurdles that await me, I feel a creeping sense of hopelessness about my prospects. Affordable housing should not be this difficult to acquire. And yet, Boston’s housing landscape is rapidly becoming inhospitable to all but the city’s wealthiest homeowners and renters, while more of us are reduced to transients.

If there is one story that offers some crackle of hope in Boston’s affordable housing landscape, it’s the recent news about the Blue Line Portfolio. The City of Boston contributed $12 million to a joint venture with nonprofit organizations to save 36 income-restricted small apartment buildings in East Boston from becoming market-rate properties. (The buildings had been put up for sale.) These buildings — the “Portfolio” in the name — will remain affordable in perpetuity, and they’re a testament to what’s possible when a city decides that keeping residents housed is a worthy cause for investment. Whether it’s saving affordable housing, building more of it, or creating better systems to distribute housing stock, that investment is what so many of us have been waiting for. If nothing else, it would be a welcome gesture of reciprocity, as we continue to invest more of our labor, income, and emotional energy into finding a place to live in Boston.

Miles Howard is a freelance journalist in Boston.