Tenant Advocates Say New Emergency Rental Assistance Program Might Not Be Reaching The Most Vulnerable New Yorkers

Tenant advocates say the $2.7 billion federally-funded emergency rental assistance program aimed at helping struggling New Yorkers behind on their rent due to the pandemic might not be reaching the residents who need it the most.

New Yorkers started applying for the program on June 1st. The agency in charge of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), received 119,209 applications by the end of June, with the 91,457 coming from New York City (the agency says some applications might be duplicates).

But advocates say problems with the online application portal could be preventing the lowest-income, immigrants and senior New Yorkers from successfully submitting applications, adding further stress in paying their back rent.

“I fear we will not reach the very communities that the legislation specifically wanted to reach, mainly people under 50% of the area median income, survivors of domestic violence, survivors of sex trafficking and people living with disabilities,” said Jack Newton, director of the public benefits unit at Bronx Legal Services. “I think that will continue to be a problem in the weeks to come.”

Bronx Legal Services is one of 29 non-profits that sent a letter to OTDA earlier this month asking the agency to address the problems people are experiencing: the difficulty of collecting all the necessary documents and uploading them, an issue that has frequently tripped up tenants because applications can’t be saved and resumed; “error” messages that force tenants to exit and restart an application; inadequate translations of the information about the program into other languages; and needing to have an email address to submit an application.

Justin Mason, a spokesperson for OTDA, said they “are addressing any technical issues promptly and as they are encountered,” and are reviewing the letter.

“The agency has undertaken an unprecedented effort to establish partnerships with local governments across the state and welcomes any input we receive from community-based organizations—especially those groups actively involved in helping New Yorkers apply for this critical assistance,” he said.

Timothy Johnson, 59, said he and his partner, who live in a two-bedroom apartment in the Morrisania section of the Bronx with their two daughters, made five unsuccessful attempts in applying for the program. Johnson said their landlord told them they owe $11,000 in back rent (an amount they dispute) from during the pandemic. He has tried to apply on his phone because he doesn’t have access to a computer, but said he ran into issues uploading documents.

“It’s confusing,” Johnson said. “It tells you to upload documents and it doesn’t tell you which documents to upload. You really have to be computer-savvy to know how to fill this out.”

Landlord groups have also expressed dissatisfaction with the rollout of the program. Jay Martin, the executive director at the Community Housing Improvement Program, which represents 4,000 property owners in the city, said the most successful landlords are the ones who’ve been scheduling 30-minute appointments with tenants in their offices and assigning their staff to assist with applications, which he sees as the state’s failure to establish a user-friendly application process.

“You can go on Amazon, you can order toilet paper and have it at your house in 24 hours,” he said. “But when we’re talking about a multi-billion dollar program from the government to help keep people in their homes and to keep the housing market from collapsing, we can’t even figure out a way to keep the website from not crashing.”

Officials say households with income at or below 80% of the area median income (AMI)—$95,450 for a family of four in the city, for instance—can get up to 12 months of rental and utility arrears payments. During the first 30 days of the program, OTDA was prioritizing applications from lower-income households earning 50% of AMI that have at least one member who’s unemployed, a veteran, or a domestic violence victim. Now, the money will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, with the goal of serving between 170,000 and 200,000 households across the state. The OTDA spokesman said they expect the first payments to go out “in the coming weeks.”

While noting that’s an important goal, advocates said they’re also worried about the lack of more granular data about where applications for the program are coming from. Ellen Davidson, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said they’ve asked OTDA to release zip code and income-level data on tenants who’ve applied for the program to determine whether outreach efforts have worked and who’s being left out.

“When any of these programs are created, oftentimes you see the highest income, most educated people applying before the most vulnerable,” she said. “Sometimes it takes unconventional outreach, directed outreach to make sure that everyone knows about the application.”

Nohemi Rojas, 36, said she benefited from that kind of outreach. Although it took three attempts (she said she was missing documents), last month, she submitted her application, with the help from the group Make the Road New York. She and her husband lost their jobs during the pandemic and couldn’t pay rent and utility bills for their apartment in Elmhurst, Queens, for six months. They accumulated nearly $14,000 in missed payments. Now, she said, all she can do is wait to see if her application gets approved.

“I feel happy and suspenseful at the same time,” she said.