Real State

This Couple Won the N.Y.C. Housing Lottery and Their Dream Apartment

When the pandemic began, Susannah Dalton and José Ignacio Vivero were living in a basement apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. “It wasn’t bad during Covid,” Ms. Dalton said, “because it had a strong bunker feel and that was the vibe back then. This was back in the early days when we were, like, Windexing groceries.”

But they were focused on brighter days ahead and spent their time in lockdown looking for better living conditions. They began by completing an application for NYC Housing Connect, the online portal that matches renters with open housing lotteries. “We thought, well, let’s just start putting our hat in the ring,” recalled Ms. Dalton.

They needed to escape the bunker, but they hoped to stay in Queens. During their 17 years in the city, it’s the only borough they’ve ever lived in, and it’s provided them with a sense of community and belonging — and funding for their work. “We’re lucky because, as artists, we get a lot of grant funding, and the Queens Art Fund has been so supportive,” Ms. Dalton said.

She and Mr. Vivero share a background in the theater. They both acted for several years, but she eventually moved into writing and he moved into directing; they founded Pin Productions in 2009 and started producing live theater. “Some people are waiting for an opportunity,” Mr. Vivero said, “but we thought, no, we want to create the opportunity for ourselves and enjoy them with other people, other artists.”

Before the pandemic, they worked for several years on a handful of productions, but Covid put an end to all of that.

As they dreamed of an apartment with windows, they were also contemplating a pivot to doing more video work, trying to capitalize on their previous experience in film and television while theaters remained closed.

That’s when NYC Housing Connect, a city-run online portal for connecting renters with low and middle incomes with affordable housing through open lotteries, came through on both fronts.

In the fall of 2021, they were picked in a housing lottery for a two-bedroom apartment at 5241 Center Boulevard, along the waterfront in Long Island City. It was spacious and well-lit and, for Ms. Dalton and Mr. Vivero, the second bedroom wasn’t just extra space; they saw it as place to start producing videos.

“There were some theater projects we had funding for and we asked the funders, ‘Can we make this a video project instead?’” recalled Ms. Dalton. “They said, ‘Sure, go for it — let’s see what you can do.’”

$1,241| Long Island City, Queens

Occupations: Artists and production managers

On the start of their relationship: Mr. Vivero and Ms. Dalton moved to New York separately but happened to do so on the same day, Oct. 14, 2007. He arrived from Ecuador, and she came from Massachusetts. It wasn’t until the following year that they met at Martha’s Country Bakery in Astoria, where they both worked as baristas. “Before we started dating, we were always talking about artistic stuff,” Ms. Dalton said. “Mostly arguing.”

On acting in Ecuador: When they started dating, Mr. Vivero told Ms. Dalton about his once flourishing career as a television actor in Ecuador. At first, she was suspicious. But he had the footage to prove it. “When she saw that, she saw I wasn’t lying,” he said, laughing. “I earned her trust.”

Pin Productions wasn’t the only theater company in town that was trying to produce video. “We started getting calls, asking for content,” Mr. Vivero said.

Soon, their second bedroom was a full-blown production studio with a green screen, a voice-over station, an editing bay, and there’s even a sewing machine for costumes and puppetry.

Ms. Dalton and Mr. Vivero began taking on work from other clients — not just theater companies. There were private corporations and libraries, all looking for help with video production. “We’ve done fairy tales for kids in libraries and schools,” Mr. Vivero said. “That came first — then the drag queen fairy tales.”

“Ducky and Patsy’s Fairy Tales for Sophisticated Adults,” the drag queen show that they produce, traces back to one of the first post-lockdown days when Ms. Dalton and Mr. Vivero returned to their favorite drinking spot, Alewife Brewing in Sunnyside. “These two drag performers came out and did an amazing show,” Ms. Dalton recalled. She approached the performers about developing something for video. “The show’s very inappropriate — not for children,” she said, laughing.

“People think they only sing,” added Mr. Vivero, “but they’re actually dynamic artists.”

The first 30-minute installment of the show, “The Empress’s New Clothes,” was a queer retelling of the classic Hans Christian Anderson tale that famously leads to a bit of indecent exposure. A second episode is in the works.

Working with the two performers, Ducky Sheaboi and Patsy in Decline, has been particularly meaningful, given how much Ms. Dalton and Mr. Vivero prioritize the local nature of everything from collaborating to fund-raising. “And we appreciate that the rapid growth of our neighborhood includes room for longtime New Yorkers on a budget,” Ms. Dalton said.

Though most of the couple’s time is taken up with production work, they still find time to play bit roles in most of the videos they produce.

While running a production studio out of their second bedroom can sometimes generate a lot of noise, their immediate neighbors are spared because the apartment is conveniently located between a staircase and an elevator shaft. The spatial separation serves everyone well.

“But our doorman has definitely seen some interesting people coming up to our apartment,” Ms. Dalton said. The mission of the production company is to work on projects that are entertaining and artistic. “We’re trying to be a lot of fun but also give people something meaningful to think about.”

When they aren’t working, Ms. Dalton and Mr. Vivero get to enjoy the rest of their apartment. The natural light and the city views are what they value most — the East River and United Nations building are framed outside their windows. “Coming from a basement apartment to an apartment that is wide open with beautiful views is such a dramatic difference,” Ms. Daltons said. “Even in terms of mental health for someone who does artistic work from home.”

Mr. Vivero acknowledges their good fortune in finding an apartment in less than a year — they have friends who’ve tried housing lotteries for more than two years — but he emphasizes that it all began with the six months of work that they put into their NYC Housing Connect application.

Gathering mountains of documentation from tax returns and credit scores, to pay stubs and rental histories, the process was particularly challenging for them because of the irregularity of their income. “For many people with a normal pay check, I’m sure it’s a much simpler process,” Ms. Dalton said. “For us, it turned into a six-month audit of our artistic business.”

But she and Mr. Vivero emphasize that the will to fight through paperwork malaise is essential when it comes to everything from housing lotteries to a grant applications. “When we applied for our first grant,” Mr. Vivero recalled, “we thought it would be a lot of work and the odds would be against us, which is true, but the only way to get anything is to do the work. And you know what? It’s not as hard as you think. A lot of people see one obstacle and they give up. Good things deserve a little bit of work.”

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