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The Money Is Going Out the Door (Finally)

Issue 266

Tenants still have to navigate a complex online application form to receive rental assistance funds, but community based orgs are helping out.

Steven Wishnia Sep 16

After a series of protests by tenants and leftist legislators, New York State on Sept. 2 enacted a law extending its moratorium on evicting people financially afflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic until Jan. 15. After a very slow start, it’s also beginning to distribute federally financed rental assistance.

As of Aug. 31, the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program had paid back rent for more than 23,000 households, up from a mere 55 at the beginning of the month. It had paid out $300 million to cover up to a year of back rent and three months of future rent for people who owe their landlords money because they lost jobs or income during the pandemic. Rebecca Yae, senior research analyst at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, calls that “pretty impressive” and “definitely progress.”

New York still has a long way to go. Of its estimated more than 860,000 households behind in their rent, only about 182,500 had applied for the ERAP program as of Aug. 31, according to figures from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which administers it. It had approved about 71,000 applications.

That leaves 48,000 households whose applications have been approved, but haven’t yet had their back rent paid to their landlord. Legal Aid Society staff attorney Ellen Davidson says the most common problems are that the landlords haven’t completed their part of the application, or that OTDA has trouble connecting landlords with specific tenants — possibly because of the convoluted structures of real-estate ownership.

More than three-fourths of the people who have applied for rental aid are from New York City, primarily the Bronx and Brooklyn. More than 60 percent are women, mostly black and Latina in the city, slightly more than half white in the rest of the state. They tend to be poor: 71 percent of the applicants in the city make less than 30 percent of the federal “area median income,” or $32,220 a year for a family of three.

They are most heavily concentrated in the Bronx. There are six ZIP codes in the borough where more than 3,000 people have applied.

On the third floor of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition’s converted-house headquarters on East 196th Street, a Wednesday night workshop gives about 10 tenants instructions on how to fill out the complex online application form. A double-sided printout fills more than 20 sheets of paper.

“Most important, immigration status is not important,” NWBCCC organizer Alvaro Franco tells the group, mostly Latinas. He goes through the numerous steps: whether your lease is rent-stabilized, month-to-month, or public housing; how to demonstrate financial hardship; how to fill out the tally of the back rent you owe; and the landlord’s address.

To locate the exact owner, he says afterwards, NWBCCC encourages tenants to look up their building on the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s website or on Just-Fix’s WhoOwnsWhat page.

A 3-year-old girl, her hair pulled up, scribbles on a piece of paper with an orange marker while her mother checks boxes on her printout.

“Make sure all your documents are at hand,” Franco warns. The form has to be completed in one sitting; you can’t save it and come back to finish it later.

Tenant organizers speak out, march, demonstrate and get arrested. Watch the events of this Aug. 17 protest unfold and hear from the participants.

HOW ARE OTHER STATES DOING?

Nationally, about one-third of the estimated 6.4 million people behind in their rent have applied for rental assistance. Texas has already distributed about 60 percent of the funds it received, says Rebecca Yae, and New Jersey and Virginia are also strong performers.

California and Illinois, however, have distributed only about 40 percent of their funding, and aided less than one- third of the tenants who applied. Several other states have done almost nothing: Arizona has paid out only 7% of its funds, and Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming even less.

The problem, Yae explains, is that while the federal government is providing “an unprecedented amount of funds,” there was “very little infrastructure” to get the programs going. States had to hire staff and set up tech systems and intake-processing procedures. Texas, she says, started early, and fixed problems by hiring more staff and reducing the amount of documentation needed.

The situation became much more urgent on Aug. 26, when the Supreme Court, in a hastily rendered and unsigned 6-3 ruling, struck down the federal Centers for Disease Control’s ban on evictions in areas with high rates of COVID-19 infections. The court’s right-wing ma- jority framed it in terms of landlords’ property rights, and said it was stretching logic to argue that evicting people would increase the disease’s spread.

The landlord groups suing “say they have lost ‘thousands of dollars’ in rental income,” Justice Stephen Breyer responded in dissent, but that injury has been lessened by the $46.5 billion Congress appropriated to help pay rent and rental arrears. “Compare that injury to the irreparable harm from vacating the stay. COVID-19 transmission rates have spiked in recent weeks, reaching levels that the CDC puts as high as last winter: 150,000 new cases per day.”

Several states and cities have declared their own moratoriums, including California, Illinois, New Jersey, Minnesota and the cities of Washington and Boston. In Philadelphia, landlords can’t evict tenants for nonpayment unless they prove they’ve complied with the emergency rent application process, says Yae.

The long-feared eviction wave hasn’t yet materialized in the rest of the country, she says, but she worries about what will happen in states like Arkansas, where landlords can start the eviction process if tenants are five days late with the rent, and tenants can be thrown out within 10 days after that.

The law extending New York’s moratorium allows landlords to demand that tenants document COVID-inflicted financial hardship in court. But an approved application for ERAP would be “pretty good evidence of hardship,” says Davidson.

In the Bronx, some landlords have failed to provide the information needed to receive back-rent payments, says Franco. One, David “David David” Kleiner, listed among the city’s 15 “worst evictors” by Right to Counsel NYC in 2018 and 2019, “hasn’t complied, period,” he adds.

Meanwhile, as the Northwest Bronx tenants use the document scanner and computers in the first-floor offices to file their applications, another problem rears its head. The application must be completed in one session. But one woman loses hers when the ERAP Website crashes.

The 3-year-old girl’s mother also loses hers, when her daughter, playing, pushes the button that turns the computer off.

An organizer tells her to come back on Monday, when she’ll have time to help her try again.

For more on how to receive assistance applying for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, call the Met Council on Housing tenant hotline at 212-979-0611. Mon-Wed 1–8:30 pm, Tues 5:30–8 pm, Fri 1:30–5 pm.

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