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Lawmakers demand answers on New York rent relief rollout

July 13, 2021 GMT

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — It will be weeks before New York issues any payments from the state’s $2.4 billion COVID-19 rent relief fund, state officials told The Associated Press Tuesday, adding to delays in a program that has been beset by technical glitches with its online application portal.

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 Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration.

But New York is one of four states that did not distribute any of the tens of billions of dollars in rent relief that Congress has paid out to states this year, according to a U.S. Treasury report of spending through May. Virginia dispersed over $155 million by May 31, while Texas has distributed over $450 million so far.

On June 1, New York launched an online application portal allowing tenants and landlords to apply for rent — nearly two months after lawmakers first created the $2.4 billion rental relief fund. The State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance has said it would take four to six weeks to process applications to release payments to landlords.

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Six weeks later, agency spokesperson Anthony Farmer said Tuesday that first payments are “expected to go out in the coming weeks.”

“The program has already received more than 100,000 applications and upwards of 7,000 calls a day are being handled with virtually no wait time,” Farmer said.

But tenants and landlords alike say that New York’s application portal is too difficult, time-consuming and glitch-prone to ensure eligible New Yorkers are getting the help they need applying, according to The Associated Press’ interviews with two dozen New Yorkers struggling to work with the state’s website.

Farmer has said that the state has addressed “minor” issues with the application website.

But tenants and landlords say that hotline workers tasked with helping frustrated applicants are often unable to help solve issues, while a string of website glitches have at times erased applications and prevented applicants from uploading documents.

“I’ve been unable to upload the documents every day since June 3, and I call everyday, since June 3,” said Adrienne D’Angelo, a professor in Manhattan.

Advocates for low-income New Yorkers are calling on New York to allow people without internet access to apply by paper. Others are calling for more help for landlords who can’t locate tenants, and for tenants whose landlords won’t submit applications.

ODTA didn’t provide answers to repeated questions from The Associated Press about how many applications have been fully completed and approved so far, who designed the application portal and why website glitches have persisted.

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Meanwhile, lawmakers fielding calls from scores of frustrated constituents are demanding answers from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration. New York dedicated $100 million of federal funding to rental relief last year, but only released $47 million to 18,000 applicants.

“How does $2.4 billion look? It looks good,” state Sen. Robert Jackson, a Democrat whose Manhattan district includes parts of Harlem and Washington Heights, said in an interview. “How many people have received rental assistance so far? Zero. It’s a problem.”

And some lawmakers are calling for hearings and action ahead of another potential spike in applications once New York’s eviction moratorium expires at the end of August.

“The reality is people need that money now, and government incompetence and inefficiency cannot be allowed to persist when tenants and landlords are suffering the way they are,” Sen. Mike Martucci, a Republican whose district includes the Catskills and Hudson Valley, said.

Sen. Brian Kavanagh, a Democrat of New York City who chairs the Senate’s housing committee, said his priority is “pushing ODTA to get the problems straightened out.”

He urged the public to apply regardless: “I hope people don’t get the message that it’s not worth applying.”

Lawmakers are also demanding details on a $115 million contract awarded to an Illinois-based company, Guidehouse, charged with rolling out the rent-relief program.

Contracts over $50,000 typically require approval from the state comptroller, but the now-expired state COVID-19 emergency meant those rules were suspended.

It’s unclear what performance standards — if any — Guidehouse agreed to meet in the contract, and whether there are any penalties for poor performance. ODTA hasn’t provided a copy of the contract to AP, which requested it through a records request.

Lawmakers are also seeking answers about whether New York followed ethics rules in awarding the contract to Guidehouse, which won the contract this spring. A former Cuomo senior advisor left the administration for a job at Guidehouse starting in May.

“Is this the right thing to do?” Sen. Jackson said. “Where’s the checks and balances, where’s the transparency?”

Guidehouse directed request for comment to ODTA. Farmer said ODTA had no knowledge that the former aide was being considered for employment by Guidehouse.

Moreover, he “was not identified at any point by Guidehouse as having any role in ERAP for either Guidehouse or any of its subcontractors,” Farmer said, referring to the emergency rental assistance program.