Three weeks after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans to fix the state’s troubled pandemic rent relief program, his administration has paid out less than 5% of the $2.7 billion available — infuriating tenants and landlords alike.
Though they’re united in their ire at the outgoing governor, building owners and residents are drawing battle lines over the fate of the state’s now legally shakey moratorium on evictions, which is set to end Aug. 31. Tenant groups are supporting an extension while landlords are pleading grave financial danger.
The dual crisis is likely to be dumped on the incoming governor, Kathy Hochul, when she takes office Aug. 24
“It’s a mess,” said Ellen Davidson, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society monitoring the rent relief program.
Added Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents landlords: “Everyone is frustrated.”
The duo spoke out separately after the state’s Office of Temporary Disability Administration (OTDA) revealed late Monday that it had distributed just $114.1 million in rent relief, covering 8,035 payments to landlords.
By contrast, Texas has given out $675 million to 111,000 households. Even the city of Philadelphia alone has outperformed New York State, with $144 million disbursed to 26,000 households.
The money, part of $47 billion included in the Biden administration relief package approved in February, is designed to pay back rent for tenants hurt by the economic shutdown. To qualify, tenants must make less than 80% of the area median income, and show their income was affected by the pandemic.
Under current rules, money not distributed by Sept. 30 may have to be returned.
The complaints about New York’s slow rollout center on a technically troubled online application that the state seems unable to fix, despite Cuomo’s promises. There’s also anger over a lack of data that could allow the state and advocates to pinpoint and tackle the system’s biggest problems.
Tenants and landlords say the glitch-ridden online process still doesn’t let users save applications-in-progress, sometimes doesn’t accept documents and doesn’t clearly signal when applications have been completed.
One client of BronxWorks, a nonprofit hired by the city to help tenants navigate the system, submitted more than 20 applications before successfully completing one, said Scott Auwarter, the group’s assistant executive director.
Examples like that suggest the 170,000 applications the state has received — 114,000 from New York City alone — contain a significant number of duplicates.
Typical of relations under Cuomo — whose resignation in the face of numerous sexual harassment allegations goes into effect next week — coordination between the state and the city is nonexistent, advocates for tenants and landlords say.
“Everyone has fallen down on outreach,” said Davidson. “The state points to the localities and says it’s their responsibility to do outreach and completely washes its hands of doing anything except for blaming others. The city promised huge outreach but it’s unclear that any of it has happened.”
City officials did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
The Community Housing Improvement Program, which represents mostly small and mid-sized landlords of rent regulated buildings, has independently hired canvassers to knock on doors to spread word about the program. One in four tenants had no idea aid is available, according to Jay Martin, the group’s executive director.
“They have got to start advertising,” he added.
Groups ranging from the Rent Stabilization Association to the Furman Center at NYU to Legal Aid want online dashboards like those established by Texas, Arizona and Philadelphia that would provide immediate tracking of results.
“We need data to know how to focus outreach and the agency refuses to provide ZIP code and demographic data,” said Davidson.
The Legal Aid Society and others believe that there needs to be coordination between the Office of Temporary Disability Administration and housing courts since any tenant whose application is approved is protected from eviction for one year.
A spokesperson for the state court system said such coordination is not possible because of legislative oversight: OTDA is barred from sharing with the courts who has received money. The onus is on the tenant being sued to alert the court, the spokesperson said.
A ‘Sensationalized’ Report
Office of Temporary Disability Administration officials reacted defensively this week to a critical report on the program from State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, calling his conclusions “sensationalized.”
The report suggested many more people may be eligible than have applied. DiNapoli also cited payments below the $15,000 maximum in noting that money could be left in the program.
OTDA’s response emphasized that another 31,000 tenants had been provisionally approved — but blamed delays on landlords who filed incomplete forms or information at odds with the tenant application or who simply refused to submit any paperwork at all.
Martin dismissed those claims as false. He said CHIP has dozens of emails from the agency to landlords confirming they have submitted the necessary information — contradicting OTDA emails sent to tenants reporting that their landlords are lagging.
“When our government affairs people reach out to OTDA on behalf of our members they say, ‘Don’t worry about it. Those are just automatically generated,’” Martin said.
Even adding the 31,000 tenants to what has been disbursed would bring New York’s payments to only a third of the available funds, while Texas has passed the 60% mark.
Tenants with approved rent relief applications are protected against eviction for a year and their rent is frozen for the same length of time.
With the aid program in turmoil, pressure is mounting to extend an eviction moratorium dating from the early days of the pandemic.
Earlier this month, state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D-Bronx, Westchester) and Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou (D-Manhattan), introduced a bill that would extend the state’s moratorium until Oct. 31. Others have suggested keeping the protections in place until the end of the year.
But the legal issues surrounding eviction moratoriums have become murky.
High Court’s Curveball
The state law was thrown into uncertainty last Thursday after the U.S. Supreme Court declared a key provision that allowed tenants to self-certify their own economic pressures was unconstitutional. The ruling, however, didn’t spell out how that would affect other parts of the law.
An executive order by President Joe Biden extending a federal moratorium for areas with high COVID rates until Oct. 3 covers New York, but that action is also being challenged in the courts.
Strasburg said an Assembly hearing last week and one set for Thursday by a Senate committee are laying the groundwork for extending the moratorium. “The state screwed up and politicians say they will protect tenants at the expense of landlords even though owners had nothing to do with the problem,” he said.
He argues a moratorium extension will make the situation worse. Since the program only covers 12 months of unpaid rent, the longer the eviction moratorium is in existence, the less likely landlords will recover all that they are owed.
Other landlords say some tenants have stopped paying rent to qualify for aid.
CHIP intends to argue at Thursday’s hearing that if the moratorium is extended, the state should lobby Congress through Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) to extend the program indefinitely and adjust the income rules so more tenants qualify.