By Greg David, THE CITY. This article was originally published by THE TOWN
Three weeks after Governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans to address the state’s troubled pandemic rent relief program, his government paid out less than 5% of the $ 2.7 billion available – infuriating renters and landlords alike.
Despite agreeing in their anger on the outgoing governor, building owners and residents are fighting over the fate of the state’s now legally shaky eviction moratorium, which ends on August 31. Tenant groups support an expansion, while landlords plead for great financial dangers.
The double crisis is likely to carry over to the new governor, Kathy Hochul, when she takes office on August 24th
“It’s a mess,” said Ellen Davidson, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society who oversees the rent reduction program.
Joseph Strasbourg, President of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents landlords, added: “Everyone is frustrated.”
Kathy Hochul, who will take over as governor on August 24th
The duo spoke separately after the state’s Temporary Disability Administration (OTDA) announced late Monday that it had distributed just $ 114.1 million in rental benefits, which covered 8,035 payments to landlords.
In contrast, Texas spent $ 675 million to 111,000 households. Even the city of Philadelphia alone surpassed New York state with $ 144 million paid out to 26,000 households.
The money, a portion of $ 47 billion included in the Biden government bailout package approved in February, is set to repay rent for tenants hurt by the economic shutdown. To qualify, tenants must earn less than 80% of the region’s median income and show that their income was affected by the pandemic.
Under current rules, money that has not been paid out by September 30th may need to be returned.
Complaints about the slow rollout in New York center on a technically problematic online application that the state appears to be unable to fix despite Cuomo’s promise. There is also anger over the lack of data that could allow the state and lawyers to pinpoint and address the system’s biggest problems.
Tenants and landlords say the buggy online process still doesn’t allow users to save pending applications, sometimes not accepting documents, and not clearly signaling when applications have been completed.
A customer 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, group executive director.
Examples like this suggest that the 170,000 applications the state has received – 114,000 from New York City alone – contain a significant number of duplicates.
Typical of relationships under Cuomo – whose resignation will take effect next week amid numerous allegations of sexual harassment – there is no state-city coordination, lawyers for tenants and landlords say.
Governor Andrew Cuomo
“Everyone fell on the job,” said Davidson. “The state points out the locations and says it is their responsibility to do public relations and washes their hands to do anything but blame others. The city promised great coverage, but it is unclear whether any of this happened. “
City officials did not immediately respond to a message asking for comment.
The Community Housing Improvement Program, which primarily represents small and medium-sized landlords of regulated rental properties, has independently hired recruiters to knock on doors to discuss the program. According to Jay Martin, the group’s managing director, one in four tenants had no help with ideas.
“You have to start promoting,” he added.
Groups from the Rent Stabilization Association to the Furman Center at NYU to Legal Aid want online dashboards like those in Texas, Arizona, and Philadelphia that provide instant tracking of results.
“We need data to focus reach and the agency refuses to provide zip codes and demographics,” said Davidson.
The Legal Aid Society and others believe that coordination between the Temporary Disability Office and housing courts is needed as any tenant whose application is approved will be protected from eviction for one year.
A spokesman for the state court system said such coordination was not possible due to legal oversight: OTDA is not allowed to share with the courts who has received money. The accused tenant is obliged to notify the court, said the spokesman.
A “sensational” report
Temporary Disability Bureau officials reacted defensively this week to a critical report by state auditor Thomas DiNapoli on the program, calling his conclusions “sensational”.
The report indicated that there may be many more people than who applied. DiNapoli also cited payments below the $ 15,000 high when he stated that money could remain in the program.
State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli works in his office, April 29, 2020.
OTDA’s response stressed that an additional 31,000 tenants had been tentatively approved – but landlords who submitted incomplete forms or information contradicting the tenant application, or who simply refused to submit any formalities, were held responsible for delays.
Martin dismissed these claims as false. He said CHIP had dozens of emails from the agency to landlords confirming that they provided the required information – in contradiction to OTDA emails sent to tenants reporting that their landlords were doing so are in arrears.
“When our government officials approach OTDA on behalf of our members, they say, ‘Don’t worry. These are simply generated automatically, ‘”said Martin.
Even adding the 31,000 renters to the payments made would bring New York’s payments to just a third of the funds available, while Texas has passed the 60 percent mark.
Tenants with approved rent reduction requests are protected from eviction for one year and their rent is frozen for the same duration.
Given the turmoil in the aid program, there is growing pressure to extend an eviction moratorium from the early days of the pandemic.
Earlier this month, Senator Alessandra Biaggi (D-Bronx, Westchester) and MP Yuh-Line Niou (D-Manhattan) tabled a bill that would extend the state’s moratorium until October 31. Others have suggested keeping the safeguards in place until the end of the year.
But the legal issues surrounding eviction moratoriums have become opaque.
High Court Curveball
State law fell into uncertainty last Thursday after the US Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional an important provision that allowed tenants to self-affirm their own economic pressures. How this would affect other parts of the law, however, was not specified in the judgment.
An executive order from President Joe Biden to extend a federal moratorium on areas with high COVID rates through October 3 affects New York, but this measure is also being challenged in court.
Strasburg said an assembly hearing last week and one for Thursday by a Senate committee lay the foundation for the moratorium to be extended. “The state screwed it up and politicians say they will protect tenants at the expense of the landlord even though the owners have nothing to do with the problem,” he said.
He argues that extending the moratorium will make the situation worse. Since the program only covers 12 months of unpaid rent, the longer the eviction moratorium, the less likely landlords will reclaim all of their debts.
Other landlords say some tenants stopped renting to qualify for aid.
CHIP intends to argue at Thursday’s hearing that if Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) extends the moratorium, the state should influence Congress to extend the program indefinitely and adjust income rules so that more tenants qualify.
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