New urgency to fix New York’s COVID-19 rent relief program
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said Friday she was in talks to call a special session of the state legislature after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Biden administration’s temporary federal ban on evictions, just days ahead of the expiration of the state’s own ban Aug. 31.
“I am in talks with the Senate Majority Leader and Assembly Speaker to call a special session to address the impending eviction crisis, given the Supreme Court’s decision,” Hochul said in statement Friday afternoon. “Our teams will be working through the weekend to address how best to deliver relief to renters and homeowners in need as quickly as possible.”
The court’s ruling Thursday gave new urgency to Hochul’s efforts to aid tenants behind on their rent because of pandemic financial hardship.
The state since the spring has been working to dole out more than $2.4 billion to provide up to 12 months of past-due rent directly to landlords on behalf of eligible low- and moderate-income renters, but the program got off to a slow start.
As of Monday, it had distributed $200 million for 15,500 households. Another $600 million worth of aid has been approved based on applications from tenants, but has not been distributed yet because of trouble identifying and contacting landlords.
On her first day in office Tuesday, following the resignation of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Hochul said she wanted the cash to go out faster, “with no more excuses and delays.” She said she would hire more staff and assemble a team to identify and remove barriers that have stalled the release of funds.
People who apply for aid through the program can still be protected from eviction for up to a year, even after the state’s moratorium expires Tuesday. Hochul encouraged people to get their applications in immediately. The state has received about 170,000 applications so far.
In the meantime, tenant advocacy groups are pushing lawmakers to extend the moratorium. One bill would extend the moratorium through October. Some advocates say it should last until June.
“If we allow thousands of households to be evicted while the State works on improving the roll-out of its program, this additional investment will amount to far too little, and come much too late, to prevent a massive increase in poverty and hardship in New York,” said Jason Cone, chief policy officer for the anti-poverty Robin Hood Foundation.
If it is extended, the moratorium may also have to be reworked after another recent Supreme Court decision struck down a state policy allowing tenants to pause eviction proceedings simply by signing a form declaring they had a financial or health hardship due to COVID-19. The court said landlords are entitled to a court hearing where they can challenge the veracity of the tenant’s claim.
Senate Housing Committee Chair Brian Kavanagh, a New York City Democrat, said he’s optimistic the legislature will pass an extension and rework the moratorium to comply with the decision. Hochul said Friday she’s “exploring all options.”
Landlords opposed to an extension say fears of a flood of evictions are overstated because of likely bottlenecks in housing courts.
In May, the Cuomo administration awarded a $115 million contract to the Virginia-based consulting firm Guidehouse to roll out the rent relief program.
The contract outlines performance standards the company must meet or face penalty: its application portal, website software and servers must be functional over 99% of the time each month, for example.
But in the weeks after the state started taking aid applications June 1, dozens of tenants and their advocates told The Associated Press in interviews that the state’s online-only application process was plagued with glitches that erased applications in progress and prevented tenants from uploading documents.
New York City resident Helen Morley is among those still waiting for an answer to an application she submitted in mid June seeking $9,100 to cover five months of rent.
She called the application portal “horrific and horrible,” saying she could not check her application status for two months because she was assigned the wrong application number, and hotline workers were unhelpful for weeks. Her landlord has been been understanding so far, but she’s “scared.”
“The incompetence, I just don’t understand it,” she said.
Guidehouse referred a request for comment to the state.
The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which oversees the rental assistance program, has not penalized the company. OTDA spokesperson Justin Mason said the office is “continually evaluating Guidehouse’s performance.”
State Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat on the Assembly’s housing committee, said she believed the company had failed to meet performance metrics. She also faulted the Cuomo administration, saying it waited too late to hire extra workers to help with the deluge of applications.
At least 1.1 million New York households that rent have at least one family member who was economically affected by the pandemic, according to state estimates.