Rent Relief and Evictions in New York: 7 Things to Know
After the U.S. Supreme Court all but gutted New York’s eviction moratorium last week, the state’s troubled rent relief program has become the …
After the U.S. Supreme Court all but gutted New York’s eviction moratorium last week, the state’s troubled rent relief program has become the best shield against eviction for struggling renters.
The ruling caused widespread alarm among tenant advocates and drew promises from lawmakers to pass new measures to keep people in their homes. And it placed renewed pressure on the state to distribute billions of dollars in pandemic rental aid, even as the criticism over the program’s rollout has escalated.
Those in search of rent relief continue to experience glitches and errors on the application site, complicating a process that already requires a sophisticated level of technical literacy. Payments have been slow to arrive, leaving New York behind states like Texas and California, which have disbursed more aid. And fears are growing that not enough people are applying for the relief program or even know about it — and that outreach efforts may be falling short.
At a State Senate hearing about the program on Thursday, officials said that about 14,000 households had received roughly $156 million in rental assistance so far, just under 6 percent of the total sum available. They acknowledged the frustrations the program had caused.
“There’s no question that the start of New York’s rental program was delayed and technical issues have occurred,” said Michael P. Hein, commissioner of the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which is running the program.
But he said the program was “turning a major corner,” citing new features on the online application system enabling people to save their progress, rather than forcing them to complete their applications in one sitting, and letting them check the status of their applications once submitted.
Rodrigo Sanchez-Camus, director of legal, organizing and advocacy services at NMIC, a nonprofit that helps people with housing and other services in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, said things were in a “chaotic state” because of the Supreme Court’s ruling. But he said he hoped the state would work to improve its rent relief effort.
“There is still time to right the ship here,” he said.
How has the pandemic affected New Yorkers’ ability to pay rent?
Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers lost work and income during the pandemic, leaving them unable to pay rent.
One analysis of census data from late June and early July by the National Equity Atlas, a research group associated with the University of Southern California, estimated that more than 830,000 households in New York State, the majority in New York City, are behind on rent, with a total estimated debt of more than $3.2 billion.
More than three-quarters were low-income people and people of color, the analysis showed.
What about the eviction moratorium?
New York’s moratorium halted evictions if tenants filed paperwork with their landlord or the court swearing that they had experienced financial difficulties during the pandemic.
But a group of landlords and the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 landlords, sued, pointing out that the law did not allow them to challenge a tenant’s claim of financial hardship. They argued that tenants in some cases were abusing the moratorium, and not paying rent when they had the ability to do so.
Last week, the Supreme Court sided with the landlords and blocked that provision, effectively voiding the moratorium.
What other measures are in place to prevent evictions?
There are several, all less expansive than the state moratorium.
The Tenant Safe Harbor Act, a state law, prevents courts from evicting tenants who could not pay rent during the pandemic because of financial hardship. That law, however, does not prevent eviction cases from being filed and does not prevent evictions for reasons other than unpaid rent — and tenants must prove their claims in court.
A new federal eviction moratorium also remains in effect, covering most of New York including all of New York City, until Oct. 3, although that measure is also on shaky legal ground. There is a lot of confusion about how to implement it, and some evictions appear to be taking place around the country anyway.
Even so, tenants who owe rent from before the pandemic or who are struggling financially and continue to accrue rent debt may still be at risk of eviction, Mr. Hein said.
Why is rent relief so important?
The eviction moratorium was only meant to be a stopgap to prevent widespread homelessness and social upheaval as the government developed a permanent solution.
So far, that solution in New York has been the $2.7 billion rent relief program, which began accepting applications in June. While funded mostly by federal dollars, it is administered by the state.
The law governing the program includes a provision that bars eviction suits against households with pending rent relief applications — one of the broadest shields against eviction available to New Yorkers now.
Aid can generally cover up to 12 months of unpaid rent and three months of future rent, as well as utility bills. Applicants must generally show they make less than 80 percent of the area’s median income, which is $95,550 for a family of four in New York City.
The payments go straight to landlords, many of whom have struggled to pay mortgages, taxes, utilities and other bills without rental income. A tenant can use their application as a defense against eviction in housing court, even if the landlord declines to participate.
Renters generally cannot be evicted for a year after a relief payment is made.
How can I apply for rent relief?
You can apply online here. People without internet access can apply via a hotline: 1-844-691-7368.
Local housing nonprofits, legal services groups and other community organizations can also apply on behalf of tenants.
Landlords and tenants must each complete their portions of the application before payments can be distributed.
What are the problems with the rent relief program?
There have been errors and glitches with the application system online. Landlords and tenants have had trouble gathering the copious amount of paperwork required. And until last week, there was no way to save and resume an application, meaning it had to be completed entirely in one sitting.
The state has also been relatively slow to distribute the funds. By the end of June, New York was one of only two states where no aid had been sent out, according to federal figures.
Housing groups have blamed the slow pace on the state and the two contractors working on the program.
Mr. Hein said that a decision to include a bill on how the program should be run in the state budget, which was not passed until April, delayed the program’s start. He said applications typically take four to six weeks to process, but can take much longer if those applications are not complete.
In addition to the $156 million that has now been paid out to about 14,000 households, about $680 million had been “provisionally approved” for 41,000 more households, Mr. Hein said on Thursday — meaning that tenants were determined to be eligible but landlords had not submitted all of the information required on their end.
Still, Mr. Hein said that the continuing pace of new applications — about 1,000 per week, assuming a 70 percent approval rate and a roughly $14,000 payment per household — is steady but slow, and may leave some aid undistributed.
Tenant advocates and lawmakers are worried that many people may not know about the program or how to apply for it, and that an outreach effort, driven primarily by community organizations, may be falling short.
“Where eligible tenants do not get awards, the result will be a devastating increase in evictions and homelessness,” said Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit that represents low-income tenants.
How can Kathy Hochul change things?
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who next week will become governor, said in a statement after the ruling last week that she looks forward “to working with the Legislature to quickly address the Supreme Court’s decision and strengthen the eviction moratorium legislation.” And it appears she is already paying closer attention to the rent relief program than her soon-to-be predecessor.
Mr. Hein testified last week that he had not spoken to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo about the program. On Thursday, he said that Ms. Hochul has been “very engaged.”
“We have had extensive conversations,” he said. “She has expressed significant support across the board for the entire program.”