Harlem or Upper West Side? Two Longtime Renters Test 20 Years’ Worth of Savings on a New Apartment.

For more than two decades, Saul Robbins and Susan Fulwiler lived in the New York City equivalent of a golden cage — a rent-stabilized one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan Valley neighborhood on the Upper West Side that was too small for their family, but too affordable to leave.

Mr. Robbins, an artist and photography professor, craved space for an at-home studio. Ms. Fulwiler, a self-employed development consultant, wanted an office she could call her own. And both yearned for a place with a second bathroom, on a higher floor and with better natural light.

When their son, Theodore, now 6, entered the picture, the squeeze became a crush. Rather than sacrifice their living and dining space, the couple opted to cram his bed into the sole bedroom, next to theirs. Still, with 900 square feet at a monthly cost of $1,625, they considered themselves lucky.

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“By New York City standards, it was a very large apartment,” said Ms. Fulwiler, 56.

And yet, they were always flirting with the idea of an upgrade, browsing online listings and tucking money into savings. It was mostly stops and starts.

“We looked and looked and looked a bit more,” said Mr. Robbins, 61, who grew up in San Francisco in one of the city’s classic Victorian townhomes. “It becomes a little addictive. But we would always come back to this place.”

They were limited by geography, too: Most of Ms. Fulwiler’s clients are on the Upper West Side; Theodore, now in the second grade, loves his elementary school on the Upper West Side; and Mr. Robbins teaches at several universities around Manhattan.

But in late 2019, the couple realized that after saving for 20 years, they could potentially afford a down payment on a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment if they limited their search to co-ops designated as Housing Development Fund Corporation (H.D.F.C.) buildings.

There are about 1,100 H.D.F.C. co-ops in New York City, and they make up a unique piece of the city’s affordable-housing puzzle: The homes are priced below market rate, and management fees skew low. But while buyers are subject to strict income caps, they must also have enough equity to qualify for a purchase, making the apartments an appealing yet vexing option for many.

“The biggest challenge is, as middle-class people, you make too much money to get into the programs and not enough money to write a check for what you need,” said JoLinda Ruth Cogen, a broker with eXp Realty who assisted Mr. Robbins and Ms. Fulwiler in their search. “H.D.F.C. is essentially to make housing affordable for people. And to keep trust-fund babies away.”

Throughout the pandemic, the couple scoured H.D.F.C. condos across the Upper West Side. Among the properties they considered:

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