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How to enter SF’s affordable housing lottery without leaving your home

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Novel cornavirus hasn’t stopped the city’s affordable housing luck of the draw

Crimson-red mid-rise reaching 12 stories. Salesforce Tower, San Francisco’s largest tower, can be seen looming in the background.
199 New Montgomery, located in the Yerba Buena District, offers below-market-rate housing.
Photo by Brock Keeling

Even during the current public health emergency, San Francisco is still building affordable housing, exempting new construction with a certain percentage of below-market-rate (BMR) homes from recent orders that shut down many other types of construction.

But what about actually occupying affordable housing—can renters and buyers still qualify for the city’s housing lotteries and then make the big move if they’re lucky enough to score a subsidized unit?

The answer is yes—although the process is a bit trickier than it used to be, as the Mayor’s Office of Housing labors under additional obstacles during the current shelter-in-place orders. Here’s what you need to do to quality for the SF housing lottery.

  • Open houses for BMR units in San Francisco are off for the time being. However, potential renters or buyers can still apply for these homes and placements can still happen, but the entire process has to be done online. Applicants won’t see the homes for which they’re vying until the day they move in.
  • The application portal for affordable housing in SF is DAHLIA (Database of Affordable Housing Listings, Information, and Applications), implemented in 2017 to replace the old in-person lottery drawings. The portal directs users to different pages to potentially buy or rent homes. Applicants can find out which homes they might qualify for based on a simple two-part questionnaire asking household size and monthly income. The system then matches you with listings you likely qualify for, and the application for each unit takes about 15 or 20 minutes.
  • Ordinarily, the city continues to accept paper applications for the sake of the non-computer savvy. For now, however, all non-electronic applications are suspended. Any analogue paperwork sent after March will remain uncollected for weeks or months.
  • As always, the city assigns affordable housing on the basis of a random lottery of qualified applicants. All lotteries happen online now. The date of the drawing is provided in the listing (note that some drawings take longer than usual right now because of understaffing). After applying, you’ll get a PIN to check whether or not you won. Despite the extra work of running the system under the current circumstances, the Mayor’s Office of Housing says that all lotteries will happen.
  • Although some government offices are still open during the shelter-in-place orders, the Mayor’s Office of Housing is not taking in-person visitors at the time, so all communication about housing must be done remotely. The best email address for questions can be sent to Staff say they prefer email rather than phone calls, although those who can’t email can call 415-701-5622. Don’t expect an answer; they’re operating on a voicemail-only basis right now.
  • For those happy individuals who qualify for a home, note that the city’s current shelter-in-place order deems moving companies an essential business and many are still operating. The rules about who is allowed to move are particular—however, SF Department of Public Health spokespersons tell Curbed SF that moving is allowed in cases when the moving plans predate the shelter orders, when they can’t be avoided or rescheduled, and when not moving would place someone under undue hardship. Ask office of housing staff about the ins and outs of occupying a BMR unit during the public health emergency—again, via email if possible.