New York’s Emergency Rental Assistance is way behind

A federal program set up in January to help New York state tenants pay rent and utilities during the pandemic has been mired in delays and risks losing some of the funding Washington intended to see in landlords’ pockets. While applications stacked up in Albany, the $2.2 billion program had disbursed only $100 million statewide by early August, less than four percent of its available cash. 

What’s more, if 65 percent of the federal funds is not paid out by September 30, the unspent portion may be “clawed back” by Washington. 

In a July 29 letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, 44 state legislators, including Senator Michelle Hinchey, noted that the Emergency Rental Assistance Program or ERAP’s application was not posted online until June 1. While an estimated 1.3 million New Yorkers owe back rent, New York was one of only four states that had not yet distributed a single dollar. 

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The legislators called attention to ERAP’s “cumbersome online applications prone to technical glitches, lost applications, helplines that offer no real solutions, and a refusal by program administrators to offer paper forms to applicants without access to technology.” That, they said, made federal assistance most inaccessible to “tenants who are facing extreme financial hardship, those without access to a computer or internet, non-English speakers, and those with limited technology proficiency — the very populations that ERAP was envisioned to serve.”

The website itself was rife with problems. Although the application took two hours to fill out, there was no way to save the form midway through, no translation of FAQs, no printable application. The legislators also questioned the awarding of a $115-million contract to launch ERAP to an Illinois company, Guidehouse, under the governor’s COVID-19 emergency powers. The contract is not publicly available, a lack of transparency, the lawmakers wrote, that is particularly troubling since one of Governor Cuomo’s senior advisors left around the time of the award to work for Guidehouse. 

In addition to the ERAP website, applicants without internet or computer access can work with local social service agencies and community-based organizations, like RUPCO, Catholic Charities and Family of Woodstock. The latter told Hudson Valley One they’ve assisted 52 renters and landlords since the program launched on June 1. Although responses are promised within six to seven weeks, none of the Family of Woodstock clients have received an answer yet. 

Erin Burud, Attorney in Charge of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, says rural, senior and low income clients may be out of luck because they have to fill out application forms in person but often lack transportation to reach non-profit agencies. Burud says Legal Services lawyers spend about half their time on housing issues and they expect that ERAP funds will help stave off an “eviction tsunami” when the state’s eviction moratorium ends at the end of August. 

If tenants can show a judge notice that they’ve applied for rental assistance, they cannot be evicted while their application is considered. Landlords who receive ERAP payments agree not to increase the rent or evict for one year, except in rare circumstances.

Hein in charge

The state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance administers ERAP. Commissioner Michael Hein (formerly Ulster County Executive, until 2019) has begun releasing weekly reports; as of August 5, out of more than 160,000 applications, 724 for rent arrears came from Ulster County. (Applications can also be made for prospective rent and for utilities owed.) 

At a recent hearing overshadowed by Governor Cuomo’s same day resignation, Commissioner Hein assured concerned lawmakers that $460 million in ERAP funds had been allocated, though not yet sent out — enough so that no money would have to be returned to Washington. 

Hein encouraged more tenants to apply. There’s information about ERAP in Ulster County at https://covid19.ulstercountyny.gov/erap/or you can contact their call center 844-NY1-RENT.