On that Friday the 13th in March before the city’s coronavirus lockdown kicked into gear, senior management at New York City Housing Authority let the system’s 400,000 tenants know they could apply for hardship rent reductions, if they lost jobs due to the pandemic.
Applications immediately started pouring in. Approvals, however, did not quickly follow.
Tenants say they found themselves lost in a bureaucratic maze that demanded documentation showing they’d been out of work for two months. And the actual form required to obtain a rent break was in English only.
Now, NYCHA says tenants can qualify by simply calling or going online to self-certify that they’re jobless because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Even with that reform in place, the effort to get rent relief is still foundering, tenants say.
Take Ramell Stone, a Local 32BJ security guard at Rockefeller Center. He was laid off April 25 and has spent the last month trying to get a hardship reduction for the rent he pays on his apartment he shares with his 10-year-old son in the Wald Houses in Lower Manhattan.
Stone said he brought a letter about his layoff to his development’s management office, but was told he also needed a letter from the unemployment office. That was followed by a May 15 letter from NYCHA that said nothing about a rent reduction — but informed him his rent was going to go up in August.
When Stone went back to the management office and asked about the new self-certification protocol he’d just learned about, he said he was told he still needed documentation of his unemployment payments.
That demand was contrary to the self-certification policy NYCHA managers say they adopted back in late April. But it appears the message had not filtered down to frontline workers in developments who continue to give erroneous advice about what’s required to win a COVID-19 rent break, according to organizers for Community Voices Heard.
The non-partisan advocacy group early Friday sent a letter to Mayor de Blasio demanding that NYCHA follow its own reforms, writing, “NYCHA’s attempts to change the rent reduction policy to meet the needs of the moment have failed. The system is as broken as ever.”
NYCHA officials declined Friday to comment on CVH’s letter to the mayor.
As of this week, 14,000 NYCHA households have applied for hardship rent reductions due to the pandemic. Only 8,000 applications had been processed, Sylvia Aude, NYCHA’s vice president for public housing tenant administration, revealed during an online board meeting Wednesday.
Hard to Simplify Process
The journey to make hardship rent breaks easy to obtain has been slow and marked by speed bumps.
When the effort began March 13, tenants could request a rent cut due to loss of income following protocols already in use that required they prove they’d been out of work for two months. This requirement remained in place for weeks.
The reduction, if approved, was simple: NYCHA tenants are charged 30% of their income, so if they had no income, their rent was zero. If their income dropped, the rent would be 30% of the new monthly amount.
On April 10, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides NYCHA with most of its funding, allowed public housing authority tenants to self-certify loss of income to obtain hardship rent cuts. Documentation about job status was no longer required to win approval.
It took NYCHA another 18 days to adopt the self-certification rule. According to NYCHA’s new protocol, “supporting documents such as pay stubs, letters from their employers, and/or verification of unemployment benefits, which are usually required … are not required at this time.”
Barbara Brancaccio, NYCHA spokesperson, said the authority will accept these documents if tenants have them — or handwritten letters, emails or phone calls from employers to verify income loss — but that rent reduction will be approved with or without the proof.
She said residents may be required to provide some form of documentation to NYCHA “at a later date.”
But tenants say even after these reforms were announced, they kept being told that documentation was required.
Tenants still had two options: apply online through a sometimes confusing multi-step series of prompts or request a mailed application from their development office that could take days or even weeks to arrive.
On May 12, NYCHA’s on-line system for tenants simplified the application process. Two days later, the authority allowed tenants to call the Customer Call Center (718-707-7771) usually used to request repairs to self-certify over the phone, by pressing Option Five.
On May 15 — two months after first deciding to promote hardship rent reduction — NYCHA posted step-by-step instructions on its website on how to apply via its reformed self-certification protocols.
Hope on Hold
For some tenants, the fight to obtain this pandemic relief drags on.
Roxana Gomez, a single mother living in Queens’ Astoria Houses with her two teenage children, lost her job at a senior center March 16 at the beginning of the crisis.
She said the development’s management office told her she was not eligible for a hardship reduction. With no income coming in, she missed her April payment.
Gomez said she called the command center May 9 but was put on hold for 30 minutes. She hung up.
On May 20, she went to the management office and was told to come back when she had documentation of lost income. She said no one in the office mentioned self-certification.
At the Patterson Houses in the South Bronx, tenant Katherine Luciano said she provided the management office with paperwork stating that she’d stopped working — but was told it couldn’t be accepted because it contained an electronic signature.
She said obtaining a hand-written signature would be impossible under current shelter-in-place rules.
Wanda Ramos, a tenant at the Woodside Houses in Queens, got conflicting messages when she applied. She said she called the customer call line and was able to self-certify her loss of income to qualify for a hardship break.
But on Wednesday, she says her management office called and told her she still needed to file documentation to receive a rent reduction.
Language is also an issue. Although NYCHA has translated the application into 13 languages, available on its website, tenants are still required to submit a paper application in English.
Brancaccio said the easiest way to do that is fill out a form online on-line in whatever language the tenant speaks, then use Google Translate to turn it into English.
In the letter to de Blasio, Community Voices Heard wrote: “NYCHA shuts out entire communities when it does not make its information accessible in multiple languages.”
Community Voices Heard, along with the CAAAV Organizing Asian Community, New York Communities for Change and the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition, is asking NYCHA to cancel rent for the duration of the crisis and for the federal government to reimburse the authority for the loss revenue.
They’re asking NYCHA to follow its own policies by getting frontline staff in management offices at developments across the city and operators fielding calls at the call center to play by the rules.
“We are facing a crisis of unprecedented magnitude,” they wrote. “Any plan of action that seeks to grapple with it must be robust, transparent, clearly communicated and deliberately executed.”