Sun. Dec 5th, 2021

By MARINA VILLENEUVE, Associated Press

ALBANY, NY (AP) – Nearly $ 1 billion intended to cover back rent for New Yorkers suffering financial hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic has still not fallen into the hands of tenants six months after the program’s launch.

This has led to irritation, especially as the state warned that the $ 2.4 billion set aside for rent relief is unlikely to cover new applicants and mostly closed applications.

The hold up, state officials say, is partly linked to a lack of paperwork. About 82,000 applications for rental support submitted by September are still incomplete. About a third of those unfinished applications go back to June, according to the state Office of Temporary Assistance and Disability Assistance.

One problem is that the state has trouble matching applications submitted by tenants with the landlords who own the property. Some tenants did not provide contact information to landlords or incorrectly provided property numbers to property management companies instead of owners, which is a problem because the program is designed to send funds to landlords directly.

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However, some landlords say they have had trouble getting necessary information from tenants or from the state.

Brooklyn landlord Sharon Redhead said six tenants owe her about $ 50,000 in rent, and one of them did not give her an application number needed for state paperwork. She received a computer-generated message from the state aid agency that included the number, but Redhead said part of that message was “nonsense” and she has not been able to decipher it.

“I can not link that tenant’s application because I do not have the application number and the OTDA is unable to assist,” Redhead said, referring to the State Office of Temporary Assistance and Disability Assistance.

Because of the delays, Redhead said, “landlords and tenants are in this predicament, and tenants will be further in debt because the program took so long.”

Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance spokesman Anthony Farmer said the state has expanded the reach to landlords and has enough workers to process applications: 1,750 employees, including 1,400 contractors and 100 government employees relocated from other agencies.

Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, said the administration also asked his group for help tracking down landlords, including in cases where opaque limited liability companies own buildings.

“We are not sure why they are not moving the money out as fast as they should be,” he said.

Not all delays are due to bureaucratic obstacles. Some landlords do not want to participate in the program because, if they do, they are prohibited from evicting the covered tenant for a year.

Brooklyn landlord Cynthia Brooks said she did not want to keep a “squatter” who she said damaged her property, failed to pay rent, caused a roach attack and knocked on the door of her other tenant.

Still, Strasburg said he thinks it is “rare” for a landlord to outright refuse to accept checks: “They want the money,” he said. “They have not seen payments in close to two years.”

New York only releases payments when a landlord cooperates and provides contact information. According to the program rules, the state must try to collect the necessary documents for 180 days before giving up and redirecting the funds. Other states send money directly to the tenant or reject applications more quickly when it is impossible to reach landlords.

New York’s online application portal – overseen by vendor Guidehouse – also faced a number of bugs this summer. At times, the portal deleted applications and made it impossible to upload documents, according to The Associated Press’ interviews with dozens of tenants and community groups who helped with applications.

“There seems to be a technical problem with the application process, which has caused a lot of problems and is slowing everything down,” said Ellen Davidson, staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society.

Farmer from the state aid agency said the state solves technical problems “quickly and as they arrive.”

“These problems have not resulted in widespread delays in support for tenants, nor has the agency ever indicated it,” he said.

Farmer said the state is working with community-based groups to reach out to landlords with incomplete applications, including landlords who initially refused to participate.

He said it is difficult to say whether a particular problem – landlord refusal or lack of contact information to landlords – is causing the biggest delays.

“Each application is processed uniquely and within a time frame specific to that application,” Farmer said.

Hochul, who took office in August, is now seeking a billion dollars more in federal rent subsidy to supplement what the state has already allocated.

Some advocacy groups representing landlords and tenants have also urged her to reopen the tenancy reduction application process, saying the need for help has surpassed what the state has so far issued.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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