ALBANY — Housing officials defended New York’s COVID-19 response and affordable housing plan Tuesday after lawmakers criticized the state’s delay in spending $60 million in rent and mortgage assistance with a $2.2 billion expected gap in delayed housing payments.
Assembly and Senate fiscal committees continued 13 days of bicameral hearings on the state’s proposed $192.9 billion 2021-22 spending plan with a focus on housing late Tuesday morning.
RuthAnne Visnauskas, commissioner and CEO of state Division of Homes and Community Renewal, reviewed New York’s five-year, $20 billion affordable housing investment plan, creating or preserving over 100,000 units of affordable housing and creating 6,000 new units of supportive housing.
As of December, the division had created more than 70,000 units, including 66,500 affordable housing and more than 7,000 supportive housing. The state will build about 1,400 units per year, but a reduced 1,200 units during the pandemic.
“COVID has caused us to slow down, but it hasn’t stopped us in our tracks,” Visnauskas said.
The division is reviewing more than 15,000 new applications filed under the state’s COVID-19 Emergency Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2020, which the Legislature passed in late December to block eviction proceedings with a moratorium through May 1, and 90,000 applicants who did not receive assistance in the last round.
The division spent about $40 million of $100 million of the state’s $5 billion in CARES Act funding to assist about 15,000 applicants in the first round of the program. Applications will be reviewed for the next month.
Assemblyman Charles Barron, D-Brooklyn, assailed Gov. Andrew Cuomo and officials for leaving $60 million unspent, denying aid to thousands of applicants, and not reserving more of the state’s $5 billion CARES Act funding for housing projects.
“You have a governor that is a contradiction at best and a hypocrite at worst when it comes to addressing the housing question,” Barron said. “He offered $50 million toward housing. We had to fight, we wanted $1 billion, and then it’s reduced to $100 million and only $40 million of that is given out when there’s 1.3 million people in need. It is woefully inadequate.”
Visnauskas assured Barron officials are working to process applications and release aid to tenants as soon as possible.
“I think everyone is very cognizant of the fact we need to get the money out to people and in renter’s hands, and quickly,” she said.
The legislation requires tenants, homeowners and small landlords owning 10 rental properties or fewer to submit a legal declaration of financial hardship. The declaration will halt eviction proceedings that started within 30 days of the effective date of the legislation for at least two months.
The state anticipates up to a $2.2 billion gap in necessary rent relief.
Visnauskas did not provide the estimated figure when a legislator asked Tuesday.
“I think the $1.3 billion coming to the state will surely be spent on arrears that exist throughout the state,” Visnauskas said.
Sen. Julia Salazar, D-Brooklyn, later specified the estimated $2.2 billion gap and asked how the state will make up the additional funding after spending the $1.3 billion federal allocation.
Visnauskas is hopeful for additional federal rent assistance for New York, she said, as the previous federal formula provided relief to states based on population and not their number of tenants.
“Our expectation, or hope, will be additional dollars we can bring in in addition to the bill being discussed now,” she said. “Or if they can change the formula, that could bring more rental assistance to the state. I think that will go a long way forward for a very, very stressful amount of arrears.”
Barron expressed concern about putting too much weight on pending federal aid to the state.
State officials project a $39 billion revenue loss over four years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, including losses of $11.5 billion in Fiscal Year 2021 and $9.8 billion in FY 2022. New York’s revenue shortfall will mount to $39 billion over four years.
“We can’t kick the can down the road talking about the moratorium down through May — you still have the bill to be paid and it has to be done with state money combined with federal money,” Barron said. “The $1.3 billion is not enough. ...Can we immediately release this money and not wait until the April budget is passed? We have an immediate need for that. It is a shame and a hypocrisy to have this much money in one state ... and not do better.”
Congress’ $908 billion COVID-19 relief bill passed in December will provide $1.3 billion to the state in rent relief.
The state must spend 65% of the funds by September. States that do not meet the spending deadline must return unspent funds to the federal government.
Visnauskas is optimistic the state will receive additional federal rent relief under President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion relief package.
“New York’s $1.3 billion isn’t a cap — we should see that as a floor,” she said in response to Barron. “I hear you — I think the $1.3 billion is not enough, but I think New York will get the money that was already approved to states that don’t spend it and hopefully we will get additional allocation for the relief bill that’s passed.”
Assemblyman Ron Kim, D-Queens, said undocumented New Yorkers and minorities in marginalized communities were largely excluded from the $100 million relief.
Visnauskas replied the federal program will serve undocumented families.
Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, said many of her constituents were denied relief and were not given a reason why, nor given clear instructions about how to appeal the state’s decision.
The division approved about 15,000 applicants of more than 93,000 in the first round of rent relief last year.
“There was a high number of people who applied who were not eligible,” Visnauskas said. “Income documents either showed they were over income or rent statements that showed they did not have a rent burden outside of COVID.”
The majority of applicants seeking aid from eviction and foreclosure live in New York City, as the majority of renters in the state live in New York City, which has a population of roughly 8.5 million people.
Upstate tenants also applied, Visnauskas said.
“There is a need upstate,” she added. “But the majority of applicants who qualified based on the income targets and rent burden were predominantly in New York City.”
The state Office of Rent Administration has not seen an increased number of complaints during the COVID-19 pandemic, Visnauskas said.
“But I don’t know if we can necessarily ascribe that to there not being issues in the housing stock, but we did not see an uptick coming into ORA at this time,” she said.
The division will conduct a study this year to examine New York City’s vacancy rate in the wake of the pandemic.
“I don’t have a number on what the new number is,” Visnauskas said. “We will comment on that as the process happens.”
Sen. Pam Helming, R-Canandaigua, advocated for programs and foreclosure relief for the small landlords she said she frequently hears in her Western New York district.
“Not all landlords are big, Manhattan landlords,” the senator said during her three allotted minutes to question Visnauskas. “We have so many individual property owners... Whatever programs we could put in place is tremendously appreciated.”
Department officials are concerned about the vulnerability of small landlords who own smaller buildings and their occupants, Visnauskas said.
The department will have 164 fewer full-time employees in the proposed budget, which Visnauskas said were unfilled vacant positions or eliminated through attrition.
“So we didn’t have a cut in heads,” she said. “...As the budget situation improves overall, those conversations may change.”
The federal COVID-19 relief legislation allows landlords to apply on behalf of a tenant, potentially reducing paperwork and time of processing applications.
Homes and Community Renewal officials continue to wait for program guidance from the U.S. Treasury about the required documentation to validate income and income loss, Visnauskas said.
“...it would be difficult for any of us in the midst of this going on right now having access to documents,” she said.
About 60% of the U.S. population falls under low and moderate income earners. About 1 in 3 tenants cannot afford rent, or homeowners cannot afford mortgage bills or maintenance costs, Visnauskas said.
“These individuals are especially vulnerable to eviction and foreclosure,” she added.
State affordable and supportive housing units provide stability for vulnerable residents such as veterans, domestic violence victims, frail or disabled senior citizens, young adults aging out of foster care, and homeless New Yorkers with special needs or conditions, according to the state’s budget briefing book.
“The COVID-19 pandemic [showed] home is more important than ever and is key to the culture we share,” Visnauskas said. “Together we can take on these challenges ... and the systemic injustices that impeded our progress.”
Both chambers held a budget hearing on the state’s workforce later Tuesday afternoon.
A joint legislative budget hearing on higher education is expected to begin at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.