'Incredible Frustration': Just 5% Of New York's Rent Relief Has Been Given Out As Deadlines Creep Closer
Despite government promises to improve New York State’s dismally slow rent relief program, tenant and landlord groups alike complain little has been done to get money out — even as a seemingly final eviction moratorium end date looms.
“It’s really mind-boggling,” Rent Stabilization Association President Joseph Strasburg said. “There’s incredible frustration on the part of both owners and tenants, and we don’t quite understand what the heck is going on.”
Of the state’s $2.7B Emergency Rental Assistance Program, $138M, or just over 5%, has been paid out as of Wednesday, according to the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which runs the program.
A total of $2.6B was provided by the federal government, and if the money is not distributed by the end of September, it could be clawed back — though officials claim that won’t come to pass. But adding to the pressure is the end of New York’s eviction moratorium, which is set to expire at the end of this month.
Supporters of the ban say it is preventing a wave of evictions as the delta variant gathers strength, but landlord groups have called it a Band-Aid solution when the government should be directing its attention to getting money out into the community.
“I'm as concerned as anybody that basically no money at all had gone out in New York State as of the end of July,” Sen. Brian Kavanagh, who is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development, told Bisnow in an interview.
He acknowledged the program’s shortcomings, and he said he hopes a joint public hearing in front of his committee and the Senate Committee on Social Services in Brooklyn Thursday provides answers. Lawmakers passed additional legislation to make it clear there is $100M made available to support landlords who have a tenant who is not eligible or cannot be contacted, he pointed out.
“We are now in the function of providing oversight and trying to understand what the glitches have been,” Kavanagh said.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a part of New York’s eviction moratorium that allowed tenants to self-certify their financial hardship rather than proving it in court. Kavanagh said the decision was disappointing, and that he planned to work with incoming Gov. Kathy Hochul on strengthening the laws.
He would not say if he will be pushing for an extension just yet, but he said if the moratorium were to be extended, it would have to be adjusted with the Supreme Court ruling in mind. He pushed back against the landlord groups’ argument, however, that housing courts should be making decisions on what is and is not a legitimate eviction. He said it is simply unsafe to allow for courts to resume.
“In the midst of a pandemic, you have to make hard choices. And we made the choice that a strong version of the moratorium was in the public interest, and was necessary to protect public health,” he said. “I agree, it is very problematic that the [rent relief program] has not functioned more smoothly. We have benefited from the fact that until last Thursday, we had an eviction moratorium in place to prevent the worst outcome of all, which is lots of evictions.”
Jay Martin, the executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, a landlord lobby group, said the government and legislature aren't being honest about the problems facing the rental market. Some 831,000 New York households are behind in their rent, according to the National Equity Atlas, with $4K estimated rent debt per household.
“It is much easier for the government to simply place a Band-Aid on a gaping wound and to say, ‘We're doing something’ under the context of extending the moratorium,” he said. “It is much harder for them to level and be honest with tenants when they say, ‘We really messed up the ERAP program, we really don't have a good solution for you. So what we're going to do is tell you, 'You don't have to pay for several more months, deny the due process rights of both you and your property owner — and, by the way, do nothing to prevent you from accruing more debt along the process.’”
Martin argues there was little community engagement in how to best distribute the funds, and that the application process — which has been allegedly riddled with technical glitches — continues to cause problems. He said there is often no one to call to report problems, and the advice has been things like “reset your cookies” or “try again from a different computer."
CHIP is now knocking on doors, Martin said, and it has found that a fifth of people it contacts have no knowledge the program exists.
“We're going to start seeing rent arrears in the $30K, $40K and $50K range,” he said.
Strasburg said around two-thirds of RSA's members have applied for the aid, dismissing any suggestion that landlords are not applying for it because of the strings that are attached.
The funding pays for as much as a year of unpaid rent and three months of future rent payments for eligible tenants, but landlords who take funds can't evict the qualifying tenant for 12 months, except in some circumstances. He said while it is possible some are not opting to take funding because they want to evict a tenant for a particular reason, on the whole most are trying to apply and facing problems with the online portal.
"Their business model is not to evict their tenants, their business model is collecting the rent,” he said.
A representative from OTDA, the agency doling out the funds, told Bisnow many early problems with the portal have now been fixed. There is a "save and resume" function, allowing applicants to pause and restart their application if needed. There is also an "enhanced status feature" that provides applicants with a better picture of where their application is within the process.
A representative noted that as soon as an application is received, the tenant is protected from eviction. There have been 167,000 unique applications as of Wednesday, and the state has obligated $638.8M, an OTDA spokesperson said. Of that, $138.4M has been distributed across 10,557 payments, an average of just over $13K.
“While we continue to take steps to ease and expedite this process, tenants who apply for rental assistance should rest assured knowing that by law they cannot be evicted from their homes while their application is processed, regardless of whether the state eviction moratorium expires at the end of the month,” a representative said in an emailed statement.
Covington Realty Services founder Shaun Covington, who manages around 500 apartments in Harlem and the Tremont neighborhood in the Bronx, said when the funds became available, he asked tenants to come into the office to help fill out applications. So far, he’s applied on behalf of about 8% of his residents, and just this week found out one has been approved for the funds more than two months after they first applied.
“I don’t have much of a choice, I need the money … Eviction is not on the table,” Covington said. “It was extremely painful when we were actually applying, it was kicking back for information that we’d already given them. You couldn’t call anyone for assistance."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, just a few days before he announced his resignation, declared a new application process would be implemented, which would relax the heavily criticized documentation standards for tenants and landlords seeking funds. He said there would be 1,000 people working on the program. But there appears to be little progress made, Citizens Housing Planning Council Executive Director Jessica Katz said.
“It can't get any worse, and we definitely have not heard a lot about it getting better, the rollout has been a failure. There's no way around that,” Katz said. “Once there’s money into renters’ hands, we should take a really close look at how this happened.”