Activists pushing state to open $2.4B tenant relief program

Activists are pushing for the state to open the newly approved Emergency Rental Assistance Program to quickly start to move nearly $2.4 billion in federal COVID-19 rent relief for up to 1.2 million New Yorkers behind on housing payments and utilities. Dreamstime/TNS

ALBANY — Now that it’s approved, activists are pushing the state to quickly open a program for up to 1.2 million New Yorkers behind on housing payments due to the pandemic to apply for $2.4 billion in federal rent relief in the state Legislature’s 2021-22 budget and meet congressional spending deadlines.

The state’s final $212 billion spending plan, which the Assembly adopted Wednesday night nearly one week after the April 1 deadline, included details of New York’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program to provide much-needed rent and utility bill relief to tenants and landlords in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

An estimated range of 800,000 to 1.2 million New York households owe between $1.4 billion and $2.2 billion in back housing payments.

The state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance will handle all applications to release $2.35 billion in federal relief to pay for up to 12 months of back rent and three months of prospective rent or unpaid bills collected since March 13, 2020.

Raysa Rodriguez, associate executive director of Citizens’ Committee for Children — a leading organization of the Family Homelessness Coalition — thanked officials for the program details in the 2021-22 budget, but urged state executives to work quickly to get things online and start accepting applications.

“We implore leaders in Albany to ensure the application for federal rent relief funds goes live as soon as possible so families get timely access to rent subsidies, ensuring New York’s children can grow up stably housed,” Rodriguez said.

Updates, including how and where New Yorkers can apply, will be posted on the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance’s website at otda.ny.gov. Additional announcements are expected within a few weeks as state Budget Division and other state executives continue to work out details.

Residents eligible to receive rental assistance are also eligible for up to 12 months of utility arrears from a combination of Home Energy Assistance Program resources, utility forgiveness of arrears offset by a utility tax credit and base funding.

Landlords must agree not to evict a tenant because of an expired lease or holdover for a year, to waive late fees and not raise rent from the set amount when the application is filed to receive the federal assistance.

The program is outlined in part BB of the state education, labor, housing and family assistance budget bill, which was delivered to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk late Wednesday. The governor had not signed the measure as of press time Thursday night.

The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance will process all applications for the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program of nearly $2.4 billion in federal COVID-19 assistance — including $1.3 billion from last year’s CARES Act II and more than $1 billion from Congress’s American Rescue Plan passed last month.

The state is required to spend at least half of the $1.3 billion housing relief by Sept. 30 under CARES Act II. Congressional representatives were unclear Thursday if the deadline was extended through Sept. 30, 2022, under Congress’s Consolidated Appropriations Act passed Dec. 21.

U.S. states must allocate COVID rental assistance from the American Rescue Plan by October 2022. The U.S. Treasury will have funds available through 2027.

“The state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance has already been at work getting ready to launch the $2.4 billion Emergency Rental Assistance Program, and we are moving expeditiously to get the funding to the New Yorkers who need it most with the expectation that the application window will be open next month,” OTDA spokesman Justin Mason said in a statement. “This program will support New Yorkers who are experiencing financial hardship, are at risk of homelessness or housing instability and earn up to 80% of area median income with priority given to those with the lowest-incomes, the unemployed and other vulnerable populations.”

The office will work closely with local governments and community-based organizations to provide outreach and application assistance and prioritize the most vulnerable New Yorkers, Mason added.

The office will prioritize allocating 35% of the funding to the state’s neediest recipients in the next 30 days, according to the law. After that, applications will be processed on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The state will target the neediest tenants and landlords, or those with annual income below 50% area median income, have been unemployed for at least 90 days, have a pending eviction case or tenants of mobile homes or dwellings owned by small landlords owning 20 units or fewer, to receive the aid within the first 30 days of the state accepting applications.

The national median family income in 2020 was $78,500, according to huduser.gov.

New Yorkers who make 80% or more of that amount, or $62,800 annually, are not eligible for the federal relief.

The state will use $100 million in taxpayer revenue to supplement aid for New Yorkers who may not be eligible for the federal program, or slated to serve New Yorkers who make between 80% and 120% AMI, housing activists said Thursday.

Other vulnerable New Yorkers will also be prioritized first, including victims of domestic violence, human-trafficking survivors, veterans and communities most affected by COVID-19.

All New Yorkers, including undocumented immigrants are eligible to apply.

“OTDA is handling the $2.4 billion Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which is funded by $2.3 billion in federal resources, and $100 million of state resources that will supplement the core program and target those facing hardship that may not otherwise be eligible,” Freeman Klopott, state Budget Division spokesman, said in a statement Thursday.

Klopott and Mason would not answer questions about the federal deadlines or how the state will ensure to allocate the federal monies on time.

Lawmakers and activists have expressed concern the state will run out of time to properly accept applications and allocate the federal aid. State executives waited to release a plan and instructions to distribute the $2.4 billion in rent relief until the budget was finalized.

Other states, including Texas, New Jersey, Connecticut and California, have announced the process and procedure for tenants and landlords to apply for the relief and have started to move their federal awards.

Republican legislative leaders from both chambers, who pushed for the state to release program details before the budget passage last week, are supportive of the announcement, but are pleading with state executives to not delay in pushing the federal funding out the door.

“This is great news for landlords and tenants who have faced severe financial pressures as a result of the pandemic,” said Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay, R-Pulaski.

Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, is pleased with the program details, but urged the state to quickly release assistance to those who need it most.

OTDA will conduct public outreach about the program to encourage New Yorkers to apply after the program goes live.

The program will be structured to allow coordination between the state and local governments that opted to directly receive funds – leveraging resources, gaining efficiencies and preventing fraud, according to the state office.

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