eviction moratorium

New Urgency to Fix NY's COVID-19 Rent Relief Program

As of Monday, the state's rent relief program had distributed only $200 million to New Yorkers behind on their rent because of pandemic financial hardship

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New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s promise to get more COVID-19 rental assistance money into the hands of struggling tenants “with no more excuses and delays” is taking on new urgency after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Biden administration’s temporary federal ban on evictions.

The court ruling Thursday means that New Yorkers behind on their rent because of pandemic financial hardship will have fewer protections when the state’s own eviction ban expires on Aug. 31.

“New Yorkers should complete and submit their applications immediately,” Hochul said in a Friday statement. “This is urgent.”

A key to staying in their homes will be New York’s rental relief program, which got off to a slow start. It is supposed to dole out more than $2.4 billion to provide up to 12 months of past-due rent directly to landlords on behalf of eligible low- and moderate-income renters.

But as of Monday it had distributed only $200 million for 15,500 households. Another $600 million worth of aid has been approved based on applications from tenants, but hasn’t been distributed yet because of trouble identifying and contacting landlords.

On her first day in office Tuesday, following the resignation of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Hochul said she wanted the cash to go out faster. She said she would hire more staff and assemble a team to identify and remove barriers that have stalled the release of funds. Hochul also said she’ll focus on getting more New Yorkers to apply: The state has received about 170,000 applications so far for a program expected to help up to 200,000 households.

People who apply for aid through the program can still be protected from eviction for up to a year, even after the state’s moratorium expires Tuesday.

In the meantime, tenant advocacy groups are pushing lawmakers to extend the moratorium. One bill would extend the moratorium through October. Some advocates say it should last until June.

“If we allow thousands of households to be evicted while the State works on improving the roll-out of its program, this additional investment will amount to far too little, and come much too late, to prevent a massive increase in poverty and hardship in New York,” said Jason Cone, chief policy officer for the anti-poverty Robin Hood Foundation.

If it is extended, the moratorium may also have to be reworked after another recent Supreme Court decision struck down a state policy allowing tenants to pause eviction proceedings simply by signing a form declaring they had a financial or health hardship due to COVID-19. The court said landlords are entitled to a court hearing where they can challenge the veracity of the tenant’s claim.

Senate Housing Committee Chair Brian Kavanagh, a New York City Democrat, said he’s optimistic the legislature will pass an extension and rework the moratorium to comply with the decision.

Landlords opposed to an extension say fears of a flood of evictions are overstated because of likely bottlenecks in housing courts.

In May, the Cuomo administration awarded a $115 million contract to the Virginia-based consulting firm Guidehouse to roll out the rent relief program.

The contract outlines performance standards the company must meet or face penalty: its application portal, website software and servers must be functional over 99% of the time each month, for example.

But in the weeks after the state started taking aid applications June 1, dozens of tenants and their advocates told The Associated Press in interviews that the state’s online-only application process was plagued with glitches that erased applications in progress and prevented tenants from uploading documents.

New York City resident Helen Morley is among those still waiting for an answer to an application she submitted in mid June seeking $9,100 to cover five months of rent.

She called the application portal “horrific and horrible,” saying she couldn’t check her application status for two months because she was assigned the wrong application number, and hotline workers were unhelpful for weeks. Her landlord has been been understanding so far, but she’s “scared.”

“The incompetence, I just don’t understand it,” she said.

Guidehouse referred a request for comment to the state.

The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which oversees the rental assistance program, hasn’t penalized the company. OTDA spokesperson Justin Mason said the office is “continually evaluating Guidehouse’s performance.”

State Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat on the Assembly’s housing committee, said she believed the company had failed to meet performance metrics. She also faulted the Cuomo administration, saying it waited too late to hire extra workers to help with the deluge of applications.

At least 1.1 million New York households that rent have at least one family member who was economically impacted by the pandemic, according to state estimates.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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