In a hearing Tuesday, the state agency entrusted with distributing $2.7 billion in rental assistance said a lot of that money would not reach landlords before the state’s eviction moratorium expires on Aug. 31.
“There is no chance,” said Michael Hein, commissioner of the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which runs the program.
Hein declined to say whether the moratorium should be extended given that only $100 million, or 3.7 percent, of the aid has gone out. The commissioner did note that the 158,000 applicants would be shielded from eviction, even if their requests have not been approved by the time evictions resume.
But an estimated 831,000 New Yorkers owe back rent — a number that landlords say is rising. Those who do not seek relief funds or cannot submit applications because of glitches in the system could be at risk of eviction when the state ban lifts.
Ellen Davidson, a Legal Aid Society attorney who testified Tuesday, said courts might fail to honor the protections baked into the emergency rental assistance program.
“I’m most worried about those protections being ignored where tenants don’t have attorneys,” said Davidson. The city’s “right to counsel” program provides free representation for New York City tenants facing eviction.
Last week, President Joe Biden and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention implemented a federal eviction ban intended to cover 90 percent of renters in counties experiencing heightened Covid case rates through Oct. 3. It’s unclear which counties in New York will benefit from that protection, or whether it will survive a legal challenge filed last week.
Eviction cases, however, generally take months to play out even without the backlog of filings that has built up during the pandemic. And the overwhelming majority of cases do not result in a tenant being removed. Most culminate in a mandated payment arrangement or the tenant receiving relief from the city.
Throughout the hearing, lawmakers sought to understand why the state’s emergency rental assistance program, or ERAP, which has been fully funded since the state budget passed in April, has been so slow to get money to those in need.
“We have tenants and small landlords who are on the brink of nervous breakdowns,” said Assembly member Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan.
Hein attributed delays to New York’s late start compared to the rest of the country. The commissioner said other states received funds in February, two months before New York.
The commissioner also said it was “cumbersome” to get both tenants and landlords to participate in the program. He said tenant applications for over $460 million in aid had been approved but were awaiting landlord participation.
Hein was unable to say why some landlords are not applying for the funds but said the agency was in the midst of reaching out to property owners. Accepting funds requires landlords to waive eviction rights to those tenants for a year, but only promises three months’ of future rent.
The commissioner did quell concerns that assistance funds would be clawed back by the federal government if 65 percent of an initial $1.2 billion allotted to the state were not distributed by Sept. 30.
Hein said between the $460 million in preliminarily approved funds and $100 million that has already gone out, New York should be able to hit the 65 percent target, or $780 million.
“That number, I know it like the back of my hand,” Hein said. “Every application we approve clearly moves us closer to that number.”