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Cuomo Rent Relief Expansion Still Strands Many in Need of Aid

Community advocates protested rezoning and lack of support for tenants during a demonstration outside City Hall, Dec. 16, 2020.
Community advocates protested rezoning and lack of support for tenants during a demonstration outside City Hall, Dec. 16, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Pandemic-slammed tenants got new hope for a lifeline last week when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state’s limited COVID-19 rent-aid program would reopen for applications for some locked out previously.

But legions will still find themselves unable to access the aid, tenant advocates warn. That’s because emergency benefit payments earlier this year may have rendered many tenants ineligible.

Patty McKee, 50, is concerned she will be rejected again, even though her household income and the rent on the Williamsburg apartment she shares with her husband had them figuring they were a shoo-in for the aid.

The state housing agency denied their rental assistance bid over the summer after flagging every one of the 10 responses on their application as incomplete, the unemployed architect told THE CITY.

Tax deadline delays meant her income records weren’t final. And she couldn’t get all the information she needed from her landlord.

“I can’t go back to him again. I’m scared he’ll try to kick me out,” McKee told THE CITY.

State bureaucrats didn’t budge. “I gave all of the information that they asked for, but it wasn’t sufficient,” she said.

That’s not all that stands in the couple’s way, even as the state loosens rules to help spend down its full $100 million from the federal government to aid tenants. The state distributed just $40 million in the highly restrictive first round, leaving the majority of applicants without help.

‘Disappeared in Thin Air’

McKee and her husband have no income. But under program rules they may be considered too privileged to qualify even if they can fill in the paperwork demanded.

That’s because her husband had already been receiving unemployment benefits when McKee lost her job in February, just before the pandemic hit New York.

This spring, both McKee and her husband were grateful for two additional $600 unemployment checks each week, allotted by the federal government via the CARES Act.

Those funds helped pay their roughly $2,000 monthly rent. Then her husband’s unemployment benefits ran out. Then the $600 a week came to a halt.

No matter: They would not receive aid under the state’s Emergency Rent Relief Act. Out of 94,000 households that applied during a three-week window, 57,000 were denied help. Just 15,022 have been approved.

An estimated 1.3 million New Yorkers statewide are at risk of eviction.

“This program looked like a little ray of sunshine, a little piece of hope, but like a lot of these things, it just disappeared in thin air when we went to reach for it,” McKee said.

Changes Could Help Some

The state has made two major changes to the rent relief program, which is designed to help pay rent covering any months between April and July 2020 for people who lost income during that period.

Applications are now open until Feb. 1. Anyone who missed the original three-week window over the summer can apply for the program.

And a requirement that a tenant already have been rent burdened before the pandemic — meaning they’d spent more than 30% of their income on rent — has been waived.

A spokesperson for the state Homes and Community Renewal agency says all previous applications will be re-reviewed for eligibility. Those who previously sought the assistance in the summer are being advised not to resubmit their application.

But under the law that created the relief program, a tenant still needs to show that they were paying more than 30% of their income toward rent as of July 2020, that they had lost income and that they were making under 80% of the average median income in their county before the pandemic.

Protesters decry looming eviction proceedings at Brooklyn housing court, Aug. 6, 2020.
Tenant advocates protest looming eviction proceedings at Brooklyn housing court, Aug. 6, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

July 2020 was when the federal $600-a-week enhanced unemployment benefit expired — leaving those who had been receiving it at the edge of a cliff. With the enhanced unemployment aid, they may have been earning too much to qualify for the rent aid, only to desperately need the help the following month.

“They technically didn’t have a loss of income until August,” noted Justin La Mort, a tenant attorney at Mobilization for Justice, who said he saw hundreds of people denied for the rent program because of the unemployment payments.

Logan Griesemer, 29, was among those receiving the extra weekly pandemic unemployment assistance. But the loss of the cash five months ago isn’t reflected in his relief application for his West Village rent.

“Because I got the extra $600, it looked like I wasn’t losing any money,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t make the cut for it.”

He’s expecting another denial letter this time.

“I don’t have work, I can’t find work,” Griesemer said. “The rent costs keep coming. We’ve been in this limbo for so long.”

Sick and Disqualified

Those who work with tenants say that they don’t expect many additional tenants to qualify under the new application guidelines.

“It doesn’t seem like they fixed what is likely the biggest obstacle,” said Edward Josephson, director of litigation at Legal Services NYC. “Most low- and moderate-income families are paying more than 30% already.”

Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo, a lawyer who helped families apply for the program through the mutual aid group Queens COVID Care Network, recalled that of the roughly 120 seemingly eligible people her group helped, just 20% got approved.

“Everyone I dealt with was rent burdened to begin with,” said O’Doherty-Naranjo.

The still-stringent eligibility rules will likely frustrate the state’s efforts to spend the $60 million it has remaining from the federal government for the tenant aid, said Ellen Davidson, a tenant attorney at the Legal Aid Society.

“It makes no sense,” said Davidson. “I think they’re going to struggle to pay out the remaining portion of the money. I don’t think they’re going to be able to spend it, and it’s just immensely disappointing.”

For those who are eligible, the rent program’s exhaustive documentation requirements have thwarted people who worked informal jobs — and those jolted by COVID-19.

A 69-year-old tenant named Renee, who asked that her last name not be published, said she spent three and a half months in the hospital recovering from the coronavirus, only to be denied rent relief because she didn’t have the right documents.

“They said I didn’t qualify because I didn’t have a 9-to-5 [job], and it was very, very frustrating because I was trying to keep my mind,” Renee said. “With COVID you have to rest, and relax and stay calm. For me, needing to fill out all these forms was really frustrating.”

She still doesn’t understand how she was rejected: “How did I not qualify? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Year-End Rush

Meanwhile, Cuomo’s repeatedly extended eviction moratorium for tenants who can prove pandemic hardship is slated to expire Jan. 1. A separate federal eviction moratorium, originally set to expire at the end of this month, was extended through Jan. 31 as part of Congress’ second stimulus package.

New York Capitol Building
The New York State Capitol Building in Albany.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

State lawmakers are discussing holding a rare December legislative session to codify Cuomo’s eviction plan into law and expanding it to provide more aid to tenants still struggling to pay their rent, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) told reporters in Albany Monday.

“We are pretty clear that we want to do an eviction moratorium, and other issues that make sure people are able to stay in their homes.” Heastie said. “We don’t want people to have to walk into court to prove a hardship. So, we’re working on that language.”

But holding a special session — even remotely — before the end of the year could prove tricky.

Senate and Assembly Democratic leaders need to reach a consensus on the eviction issue before introducing a bill at least three three days before it can be voted on by lawmakers — all while sidestepping the Christmas holiday.

Cuomo can waive the usual three-day waiting period, but lawmakers would be at his mercy.

The $900 billion pandemic aid bill approved by Congress late Monday includes $25 billion for emergency rental assistance and extends the deadline to use the rental assistance funding provided in the CARES Act.

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