New Yorkers Can Start To Apply For Emergency Rental Assistance

New Yorkers who fell back on their rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic can start applying for emergency rental assistance program Tuesday. 

Officials say they’ve allocated $2.7 billion for the program statewide. Households with income at or below 80% of the area median income (AMI)—$95,450 for a family of four in the city—can get up to 12 months of rental and utility arrears payments. 

There’s a formula for distributing the payments. Lower-income households earning 50% of AMI that have at least one member who’s unemployed, a veteran, or a domestic violence victim will be prioritized during the first 30 days of the program, after which the money will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Nohemi Rojas, 36, said she and her husband lost their jobs in March of 2020 and couldn’t pay rent for their apartment in Elmhurst, Queens, for six months. She said they accumulated nearly $14,000 in missed payments.

“I was worried that I would be evicted for living so many months without being able to pay the rent,” she said, even though she knew a statewide moratorium was in place for tenants affected by the pandemic, and was extended until the end of August.

Last fall, Rojas went back to working in a laundromat and her husband started working again as a day laborer, but said she feels relieved that she can apply for the emergency rental assistance program to cover her arrears and has put together most of the documents she needs to apply.

“This program … will help my family a lot,” she said.

Jack Newton, director of the public benefits unit at Bronx Legal Services, said COVID had swept thousands of his clients into sudden poverty, with many owing more than 12 months of rent, in the range of $25,000.

“The need is extraordinary,” he said. “In my 20 years of doing this work, I have never seen so much need for help paying rent arrears. It is thousands of families.”

Officials estimate the program will serve between 170,000 and 200,000 households across the state. Undocumented immigrants can apply, because the criteria state individuals do not need to have lawful immigration status to qualify.

All payments will be made directly to landlords. Olga Someras, legal counsel at the Rent Stabilization Association, one of the largest property owner groups in the city, said that the program should have been introduced sooner and that she was concerned the money might run out too quickly. Nonetheless, she said, landlords are pinning their hopes on the program. 

“I think that a lot of landlords are really waiting for this program to roll out and have been with bated breath,” she said. “They’re very excited that finally there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

James Whelan, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said he’s also pleased the state set the June 1 date for launching its rent relief program. “We share the goal of full participation by eligible tenants and owner acceptance of rental arrears payments and we stand ready to partner with the state on efforts to educate New Yorkers on how to utilize the program,” he stated.

But the conditions for taking the aid rub some landlords the wrong way. “The caveat is that if the landlord chooses to accept the back rent for 12 months, then he cannot evict the tenant for an additional 12 months,” said Mike Soyfer of NY Landlords, a statewide group.

He said his group plans to file a lawsuit in Western New York to end the moratorium. Another suit against the state was filed in federal court.

There are other complications. Joanna Wong, a member of the Small Property Owners of New York, owns a walk-up building just north of Chinatown that has more than 20 residential renters and two retail tenants. She said a couple of her residential tenants owe thousands of dollars in rent, but another owes much more dating back to before the pandemic. She’s unsure if she’ll be able to collect any rent for that person.

“If everyone had no arrears and everyone only had arrears during COVID, that’s very clean,” she explained. “Every situation is a little bit different so it’s hard.”

Wong said she cut deals with her commercial tenants, a bar owner and a laundromat, to keep them from closing. But when they apply for relief through the state’s $800 million program for small businesses, which will start accepting applications June 10th, it’s not clear if they’ll be required to pay her anything because technically they’re not in arrears.

“It kind of makes you feel like nice guys finish last,” she said. “If in effect none of this grant money can go to the rent, I would have been better off not waiving anything and just keeping the arrears on the books. Which is the opposite of … the behaviors that people want.”

When a commercial tenant applies for relief starting June 10th, the tenant can seek up to $50,000. They can then use the money for rent, heating, insurance, machinery and property taxes. It doesn’t have the same requirements as the residential program.

Jolie Alony, who owns Thompson Chemists in SoHo, is very eager to apply for the small business relief – even though she said she’s lost more than the maximum amount of $50,000. “Everybody’s been sitting on pins and needles trying to get their life back together. I want my life back, I want my customers back, I want SoHo back.”

She said commercial tenants should have been allowed to apply earlier than June 10th, given how much they sacrificed. “Nobody has any capital right now, everybody’s drained.”

To qualify for state aid, small businesses have to show at least a 25% revenue loss from 2019 over 2020 (calendar years). Their gross receipts must be less than $500,000.

Natasha Amott, owner of Whisk NYC and an advocate with the group Save Our Storefronts, said the state and its partners should work fast to identify those businesses that meet this low cap of $500,000.

“Given the high commercial rents in New York City, not every viable small business will meet that criteria,” she said. “Their rent would demand that receipts are higher. But if this little pot of money can get to truly needy businesses in low-income neighborhoods (likely communities of color), terrific.”