State pays $817K of $2.7B in rent relief

Sen. Pam Helming, R-Geneva, speaks inside the state Capitol in Albany in April to demand the state release details to distribute $2.7 billion in federal rent relief to tenants and small landlords struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy of the state Senate Minority conference

The state processed hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent relief Monday after Senate Majority Leader U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer chastised state officials over the weekend for the sluggish rollout of emergency housing relief, warning the assistance could be returned to the federal government if the New York agency fails to act quickly.

The state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance has processed around $817,000 of $2.7 billion in payments for its Emergency Rental Assistance Program to help low- and moderate-income renters or property owners in arrears because of the COVID-19 pandemic, including $700,000 processed Monday and $117,000 processed July 19.

The U.S. Treasury mandates a percentage of the relief funds be allocated by the end of September, otherwise it will be returned and reallocated to other U.S. states, and thousands of New Yorkers will be evicted.

“Nearly $700,000 in rent relief payments were made today to New Yorkers after opening the program to applications within weeks of enactment in April, and payments are now expected to be provided daily,” Justin Mason, spokesman with the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance said in a statement Monday. “The program agreed to with the Legislature set a 30-day period requiring the prioritization of more than 100,000 applications in order to target initial payments to those who need it most. That prioritization and review effort continues as new application and eligibility systems make it possible to provide payments only weeks after launch and, in the meantime, tenants who have submitted a completed application remain protected from eviction.”

New York was one of two states that had not sent out any of its $2.7 billion in rental or housing relief at the end of June. Applications opened June 1.

Schumer, D-N.Y., sent a letter to the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance Commissioner Michael Hein on Sunday to urge the agency to “move heaven and earth to fix the mess” before the looming end-of-summer deadline.

“How it works with federal funds is that if you don’t use them, you could potentially lose them, and that would be very bad,” Schumer said. “New York already sends enough money to the feds. These dollars are meant for New Yorkers. That’s why I fought so hard for them, and our tenants, in the first place.”

Federal congressional staffers have said the deadline to allocate at least half of the assistance was extended six months from the original September 2021 deadline to March 2022. Representatives from Schumer’s and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s, D-N.Y., office did not respond to inquiries about the federal deadline Monday.

New Yorkers have struggled with the application process, glitches on the state website and unclear rules about the program, Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society, said in a statement.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday expressed confidence the state will give the relief to needy New Yorkers by Aug. 31, and announced a new streamlined application for tenants, landlords and property owners applying for the relief.

The agency needed to ensure the system was working securely over the last two months, officials cited as reasons Monday for payment delays.

“There’s a balance here,” Cuomo said about the delays during an unrelated press conference in the Bronx. “We went through this last year with unemployment benefits. You want to make sure you give the money to people who need it most so there’s no fraud and no scams. ...People have to follow the guidelines. We have to make sure it’s going through the people who need it most. We’re going to start with funding the poorest tenants and the funding will be out by Aug. 31.”

OTDA is confident New York will use all the federal dollars that have been provided, according to a statement from the agency Tuesday.

Cuomo’s office also relaxed standards for tenants and landlords to submit documentation to prove arrears and the process for landlords with multiple tenants.

The state office and its contracted vendor working to process the rent relief program has dedicated more than 1,000 staff members to the effort, and will continue to add additional accounting experts to assist, according to a statement from the governor’s office. A minimum of 350 state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance staff volunteers from other agencies will help to clear 4,828 reviewed, pending cases for payment by Aug. 3.

Lawmakers have expressed frustration over the state’s sluggish rollout of the program for several months, including Housing Committee Chair Sen. Brian Kavanagh, D-Brooklyn, during debate on the Senate floor May 3 to extend the state’s eviction ban until Aug. 31. The state knew about $1.3 billion in federal rental and housing assistance in December.

Kavanagh blamed the program’s slow rollout on Democrats’ insistence to fund it in the state’s 2021-22 budget in a New York Times report released Sunday.

Republicans in the Senate and Assembly have pushed Cuomo and state officials to hasten opening the program to applications and awarding relief to evade returning the much-needed federal assistance.

“I hope this announcement from the governor’s office will finally expedite the distribution of rental assistance funds,” Sen. Pam Helming, R-Geneva, said in a statement Monday.

Helming is the Senate GOP’s ranking member on the Housing, Construction and Community Development Committee.

“As the governor said, landlords and tenants need this funding now,” Helming said. “They also needed it yesterday. And last year, when New York received its first $100 million from the federal government and distributed only $41 million.”

“We must also continue to prepare for the efficient reopening of local housing courts as the state’s eviction moratorium ends on Aug. 31,” she added. “After leading two roundtables on this issue, I am now compiling recommendations from participating experts to New York’s Office of Court Administration. As always, I stand ready to work with my colleagues on the Senate Housing Committee to ensure New York State does a much better job to support landlords and tenants.”

Nearly half of Americans missed at least one rent or mortgage payment in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, totaling about $6,000 in back housing payments for the average household, according to the Urban Institute.

More than 160,000 applications were submitted as of July 16, with more than 100,000 applications submitted in the program’s first 30 days.

Payments will be made directly to the landlord/property owner and utility company on behalf of the tenant, according to OTDA. Tenant applicants will be notified of the amounts paid on their behalf.

Relief will be held for up to 180 days if a landlord is difficult to locate or does not provide information needed to complete the application.

The office encourages tenants to share their notification of receiving relief with the landlord, and may provide it to a court as defense if needed.

Processing times for applications vary greatly and are based on the completeness of the application, by both the tenant and landlord, and all the correct documentation being submitted, according to OTDA.

Landlords participating in the program must agree payments will fully satisfy the outstanding arrears, to waive all late fees and to not increase the tenant’s monthly rent nor evict them for one year.

Once a tenant has applied to the program, their landlord cannot evict for nonpayment of rent during the covered period unless the household is deemed ineligible for assistance.

If a landlord refuses to provide information needed to complete a tenant’s application, or refuses to accept funds, the tenant will be provided with an eligibility letter that they can provide to the court if their landlord does attempt to evict them, according to OTDA.

Applicants with income at or below 80% of area median income, unemployed and state certified Minority/Women-owned Business Enterprises, or MWBEs and small businesses with 10 employees or fewer were prioritized in the first 30 days of the program, which started June 1.

Applications continue to be processed on a first-come, first-served basis as long as funds remain available.

The state budgeted $100 million for the Emergency Rental Assistance fund in its 2021-22 budget.

Program updates will continue to be posted each month at otda.ny.gov/programs/emergency-rental-assistance/.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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