Lawmakers demanding state release billions in rent aid

New York News

NEW YORK (PIX11/AP) — Roughly $2 billion in federal rental assistance remained in the hands of New York state officials on Sunday as thousands of tenants continued to struggle to make ends meet amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sen. Chuck Schumer on Sunday released a letter he sent to the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, demanding the agency “move heaven and earth” to quickly release the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) funding. While some of the federal funding has gone out, Schumer said New York needs to pick up the pace of disbursement as the state’s August 31 eviction moratorium deadline nears.

It’s of particular concern for 57-year-old New York City resident Michelle Diaz because the Broadway theater she works in doesn’t reopen until December. “I’m quite worried, actually,” she said.

Diaz doesn’t know how she’s paying her work the next few months and she’s heard that it’s a frustrating and complicated application process to get federal money through the state ERAP. “There is so many people who don’t have the language, the skills, to know how to navigate it,” she said. 

Attorney Altagracia Pierre-Outerbridge said she gets calls from hundreds of people each week. “Tenants are calling, crying saying ‘I’m on unemployment, I don’t wanna lose my home,’” she said. She works with tenants and with landlords and said both groups find it is really difficult to navigate the state website for the federal relief money.

“It’s very difficult, the application process,” Pierre-Outerbridge said. “It is fraught with problems.”

The ERAP came under fire last month after state officials warned it would be weeks before most applicants received payments, adding to delays in a program that has been beset by technical glitches with its online application portal.

As of Thursday, only $117,000 in rent relief had been sent out. According to Treasury data, New York until this week was the only state that hadn’t distributed any money from the federally funded rent relief program since January. Lawmakers say that is far too little as the expiration of the state’s eviction moratorium nears.

The Legislature plans to hold a hearing soon on the sluggish roll-out of the state’s $2 billion rent relief program, which has been plagued by a string of website glitches and poorly trained hotline workers.

Sen. Brian Kavanagh, the Democrat who chairs the Senate housing committee, said the state needs to act now to address complaints. “They really have got to meet the enormous human need out there to ensure that people can have reasonable faith this program is going to work. They need to get payments out in large numbers soon,” Kavanaugh said.

The program is supposed to dole out aid to low- and moderate-income renters who have faced financial hardship because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cuomo estimated the program could help up to 200,0000 households. But tenants and landlords statewide have raised alarms about the program’s failure to get aid to vulnerable New Yorkers quickly.

The state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which administers the program, said it planned to send out more relief money by the end of this past week. “Test payments were made Monday and we are now ready to safely and efficiently deliver billions of dollars in rental assistance to New Yorkers after opening the program to applications within weeks of enactment in April,” according to agency spokesperson Anthony Farmer.

New York launched its online-only application portal on June 1, with a goal of prioritizing particularly vulnerable New Yorkers who applied in the first 30 days. But the website has been clunky. Users can’t start an application and continue it later. Other glitches have included messages that said users couldn’t upload documents, or applications that would be erased if users switched languages.

Tenants, landlords, and nonprofits who have received government funds to help rent relief applicants say that hotline workers offer conflicting advice and are often unable to help resolve website issues. Some applicants continue to report bureaucratic hurdles. Debbie Stephens, a 62-year-old pulmonary fibrosis survivor from Brooklyn, said she is now receiving notices from the state giving her just seven days to resubmit documents she had filed previously online.

“The bottom line, what I believe, is that they don’t give a damn,” said Stephens, whose family is seeking $10,000 in rent help. There is also no appeals process for tenants and landlords who feel they have been inappropriately denied relief.

Once the moratorium lifts, tenants who have applied for aid but are awaiting a decision will still be protected from eviction. New York had another rent relief program last year, but the state’s housing agency only doled out $47 million of $100 million in available federal funds.

“It’s created a feeling of despair,” Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, a Democrat, said. “Not just because of the money, but because of the overwhelming feeling that everyone is stuck and can’t move forward.”

Some legislators say they have questions about the performance of the consulting firm, Guidehouse, that got a $115 million contract to launch the application portal and manage workers who determine applicant eligibility.

A spokesperson for the Treasury Department told the Associated Press it will use every tool it has to get aid to struggling renters, including reallocating funds that haven’t been spent by this fall.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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