With the 18 buildings Valentina Gojcaj owns or manages in The Bronx saddled with $787,000 in arrears from tenants who haven’t paid rent during the pandemic, she made a list of 53 residents owing more than $5,000.
She then submitted the landlord portion of the paperwork necessary for those people to have their rent paid by the state’s federally-funded $2.4 billion relief program.
But only four tenants, Gojcaj said, have so far done their part to apply for the program.
“We called them,” she said of the 53 tenants, adding that some told her: “Leave me alone and don’t bother me.”
Lakisha Morris, who heads the Catholic Charities program the city is paying to help people in much of Manhattan sign up for rent relief, sees the challenge far differently. While the nonprofit has struggled to get up to speed on the complicated process, it has submitted 138 applications on behalf of clients and helped 200 with the online portal.
“Tenants are starting to pay attention to the program,” she said. “We are getting walk-ins who want to apply.”
Nearly a month after the state officially opened applications for the rent relief program, real estate and tenant advocates agree that the program is off to a rocky start due to frustrating technical difficulties on top of a complicated process that can take two or more hours to complete.
But they disagree over whether most tenants are enthusiastic about taking advantage of a program that will pay a year’s worth of rent and guarantee no eviction for a year — or whether some residents are gaming the system to extend the time they can live in a unit rent-free.
“I understand the real estate industry’s need to have a narrative of bad tenants, but the nonprofits working on the program have been overwhelmed with tenants calling and trying to get help with filling out the applications,” said Ellen Davidson of The Legal Aid Society, which has been focusing on helping undocumented New Yorkers apply.
Over 100,000 Applications
The program, known as the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), is funded by money for rent relief appropriated in the December and Biden pandemic relief bills.
While real estate groups had lobbied Albany to approve the program earlier in the year, the Legislature waited to enact ERAP as part of the budget passed in the first week of April. Landlords had also asked that they be allowed to apply on behalf of tenants, but the state opted for a process that requires building owners and tenants to cooperate to get money from the program.
After a previous effort late last year resulted in very little money reaching tenants, the state turned the program over to the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. The agency told THE CITY Friday the number of applications now tops 100,000.
To qualify, tenants owing back rent must make less than 80% of the area median income, and show their income was affected by the pandemic.
Technical problems surfaced almost immediately after applications opened June 1.
Applications must be completed during one online session — an onerous requirement because numerous documents are required, including the renter’s personal identification, Social Security numbers for any household members who have one, and proof of the rental amount, income eligibility, residency and occupancy. Landlords must submit a W-9 tax form, lease, rent roll and banking information.
Uploading documents has been exasperating since some days the system works and some days it doesn’t, landlord and tenant advocates say.
Landlords have been frustrated because in the beginning they needed to establish an email and separate account for each building they own. Master accounts are now allowed. Gojcaj and her two-person office staff spent hours transferring all the applications to a master account and submitting the documents.
Landlords seeking help from the Rent Stabilization Association, a building owners group, complain they often do not receive confirmation an application has been submitted. Tenants say the call center is able to confirm whether an application is successful.
‘Difficult and Time-Consuming’
The nonprofits working with tenants preach patience.
“The program isn’t as smooth as I would like to see it,” said Davidson. “The agency has continued to make changes and they need to make more and talk to people on the ground on which parts of the application are difficult and time-consuming.”
Some landlords fear that many applications will be rejected because of technical problems. But Davidson believes rejections will primarily be duplicate applications created when people weren’t able to complete the process in one sitting.
The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance contends the difficulties are not significant.
“Minimal technical issues are being quickly addressed as they are encountered, and the application process continues,” Anthony Farmer, an agency spokesperson said in a statement. “OTDA has undertaken an unprecedented effort to establish partnerships with local governments across the state to ensure community-based organizations provide outreach and application assistance while also coordinating with the localities that received rent relief funds directly from the federal government to leverage resources, gain efficiencies, and prevent fraud.”
Landlords and tenant advocates, meanwhile, differ in their accounts of the responsiveness of residents to the program.
“There is no rush for tenants because the eviction moratorium continues until August,” said Joe Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, who expects most applications to be filed in the fall.
Tenant advocates dismiss the suggestion.
BronxWorks, a non-profit with a city contract to help renters navigate the program, received 1,000 calls a day when the program first opened. The call volume has dropped to about 300, but the agency does expect another surge when the eviction moratorium expires in August, said Scott Auwarter, assistant executive director at the non-profit.
No one knows the amount of rent owed in New York City and it isn’t clear yet how much damage has been done to owners’ balance sheets or whether the rent program will stabilize their finances. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in the city is nearly twice the national average, with key job sectors still struggling even as New York reopens.
The city Rent Guidelines Board last week approved a staggered increase for rent-regulated apartments, pleasing neither landlords, who said it wasn’t enough, nor tenants who had called for a second-consecutive freeze.
The state, meanwhile, has promised the first ERAP payments will be made in the next three weeks.
“We need to get the money out quickly,” said Strasburg. “Real estate taxes are due shortly, water and sewer costs are rising, and small property owners are so far behind in paying their bills. We have our fingers crossed.”