Hundreds of tenants in Ulster County who are threatened with losing their homes have a new champion in Albany. Shortly after she was sworn in, Governor Kathy Hochul made COVID-related rent relief a priority of her young administration, vowing to reform ERAP, a dysfunctional program funded by $2.7 billion from Washington that Hudson Valley One reported on recently.
The situation became urgent when the Supreme Court struck down extensions of the federal eviction moratorium, due to expire on August 31, as well as the state moratorium — rulings Governor Hochul called “appalling and insensitive.” She urged the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, that administers ERAP and is run by former Ulster County executive Mike Hein, to speed up assistance to landlords.
ERAP, the Economic Rental Assistance Program, was designed to keep in their homes low- and moderate-income New Yorkers who, because of the pandemic, were unable to pay their rent and utility bills after March 2020. An online application that was plagued with glitches became available on June 1, 2021. While many — but not all — bugs have been fixed, applicants were promised a response within four to six weeks. Most are still waiting.
Nationwide, only 11 percent of the $46.5 billion Congress allocated for rent relief six months ago has been disbursed. As of August 23, 176,113 New Yorkers have applied, 718 from Ulster County. The state has obligated or paid out $808,470,981, with a little more than half a million dollars going to 55 recipients in Ulster County.
Since early June, Richard Knox has been helping area residents at Family of Woodstock submit ERAP applications, including his own. Federal funds are available for rent arrears back to March 2020, three months of prospective rent and unpaid gas or electric utility bills for twelve months. Both tenants and landlords must supply documentation.
Family of Woodstock is one of several agencies in Ulster County helping tenants navigate the application process. The Governor has already allocated an extra $1 million to publicize the program, recognizing that many who are eligible are probably unaware that this lifeline is available to them.
Knox, 27, lost his job when he, his girlfriend Destiny Lacey and their baby daughter Rosemary contracted COVID-19 in January 2021. He was working on per diem shifts, supporting mentally disabled individuals but the family had to quarantine for a month and a half. By the time Knox was well enough to return to his job, his shifts were filled. Destiny, a behavior specialist, works with autistic children but her job alone couldn’t pay all their bills. By April, they couldn’t scrape together rent.
One Saturday in June, the family returned to their two-bedroom townhouse in Kingston’s Skytop Villages from buying groceries. They were stunned to find an eviction warning tacked to their front door. “That day was a shambles,” says Knox. He told their landlord, “Covid’s been messing with us.” But he was told, that was no excuse. The rent was three months past due.
A few days later, Family of Woodstock hired Knox as a case worker. Assigned to process ERAP applications, he met people who owed as much as $25,000. Some came to him in tears. “It amazes me how people have courage to keep going.” He spent long days working around the malfunctioning system, helping renters and landlords assemble their paperwork. Initially there was no way to save applications in process, so many had to be erased and resubmitted when one piece of documentation was missing.
Destiny and Richard’s own application did not go through until the eighth try. Then, last week, Knox was informed that there was a problem with the landlord’s section. He called the managing agent and offered to fix any errors on behalf of the landlord as he does for other clients. His offer was rebuffed. He was hurt and baffled since rental assistance funds go directly to landlords.
Knox says many landlords are impatient with the bugs in the ERAP applications and the months-long delays in payment. Michael Berg, Executive Director of Family of Woodstock, says the eviction moratorium has been a mixed blessing. “The landlords are in a difficult position.” Berg added that landlords have struggled to pay their own mortgages, taxes and utilities during the pandemic. In exchange for ERAP funds, they have agree to go for months without income, he noted, and not to raise rents for another year. It’s costing them a lot.
Nowhere to go
One of the Governor’s first steps, according to a statement on her website, is assigning more staff to help landlords clear up “small discrepancies in information between the tenant and landlord applications” that are delaying payments.
The stress of those “small discrepancies” can be enormous. Renters need a completed ERAP application to stave off eviction in housing court. The agency confirmed that “all renters that have submitted a completed application are protected from eviction while it is under review, and those with approved applications are protected from eviction for a full year.” Without their approved application, Richard and Destiny say they feel so anxious that they are both seeing therapists.
Destiny says “to throw eviction in our faces is evil. There’s nowhere to go in Ulster or Dutchess County.” Berg agrees. “Homelessness is the single biggest issue in Ulster County.” During the last school year, there were already 500 homeless families with school age children doubled up with family or friends or living in motels. Even before the pandemic, more than 1800 rental properties were converted to Air BnBs, more than any other county in the region. Then came the COVID-fueled invasion of city dwellers. Add in the eviction moratorium, and no apartments come on the market.
No wonder that the Washington Post recently reported that Ulster County is the second hottest real estate market in the country. Home values appreciated here faster than anywhere but Boise, Idaho. And it’s no wonder that some landlords may be happy to see tenants leave, even owing back rent. Property owners can renovate and raise the rent on an empty apartment; they can sell an empty house at a substantial profit.
There’s only one solution to this crisis: more housing. Berg says Family of Woodstock is working with the county and other partners on several housing projects that are much needed but will, unfortunately, take years to be habitable.
State may address moratorium extension
Homelessness is a terrifying prospect, says Richard Knox, thinking of his own family and his clients, many of whom have young children. Most are unemployed or are living on Social Security Disability. He encourages them to follow up with the ERAP helpline, afraid that they’ll blame him when they don’t get the bailout they’re expecting. He’s haunted by the idea of people living on the street and exposing themselves to COVID-19. “We felt we were going to be safe. Now we feel we have no protection. We’re alternately angry…and worried.”
This week, Governor Hochul called state lawmakers to Albany to address the Supreme Court’s separate ruling on New York state’s eviction moratorium, a case in which a group of landlords successfully argued that they should have the right to challenge a tenant’s claim of financial hardship, particularly since the previous Governor declared the COVID disaster over in June. The legislature included that right into legislation they enacted extending the state’s moratorium until mid-January.
Meanwhile, the Governor reminded New Yorkers that the state still has more than $1 billion to help people stay in their homes. She encouraged eligible people to apply.
See https://otda.ny.gov/programs/emergency-rental-assistance/#apply for the online application. To learn if you’re eligible, contact their call center 844-NY1-RENT.
Find ERAP resources in Ulster County at https://covid19.ulstercountyny.gov/erap/