Landlords, tenant lawyers clash over reopening of rent relief portal

Rent Stabilization Association accuses Legal Aid Society of “encouraging fraud” by advising tenants to apply for depleted funds

RSA President Joseph Strasburg (iStock)
RSA President Joseph Strasburg (iStock)

Tensions surrounding the approaching expiration of New York’s eviction moratorium hit a boiling point this week, with a landlord group accusing the Legal Aid Society of “encouraging fraud” by advising tenants to apply for the state’s depleted rent relief fund.

The Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord group, has called on Gov. Kathy Hochul to challenge a judge’s order that compelled the state to reopen its rent relief portal on Tuesday. Tenants who submit a completed rent relief application are automatically protected from evictions while their case is being processed — a potential lifeline for those who may face housing court when the eviction ban expires Saturday.

RSA President Joseph Strasburg took particular aim at the Legal Aid Society, saying the non-profit was urging tenants to apply for relief “regardless of whether they qualify, just for the sake of obtaining an eviction stay.”

“Legal Aid is fully aware that it is giving false hope that doesn’t exist without the federal dollars to fund the rent relief program,” Strasburg said.

Ed Josephson, a supervising attorney for the Legal Aid Society, released a statement Tuesday encouraging tenants to submit applications to the reopened portal, highlighting the fact that doing so would ensure “temporary protection from eviction, regardless of whether the state receives additional funding.”

The nonprofit did not mince words in responding to Strasburg.

“Each day, RSA sinks lower and lower, eroding their already dubious credibility with embarrassing and wildly inaccurate statements rooted in some alternate reality,” the nonprofit said in a statement to The Real Deal. “If anything, this reveals the pathetic lengths RSA will go in its war on tenants and working families, but we can’t say that we’re surprised.”

It’s no secret that the rent relief program needs big bucks to cover the back rent owed by New York tenants, but there is hope that more money is coming. The Legal Aid Society added that the state is obligated to cover applications as long as there is funding available to do so; when federal funds do run dry, it will begin denying those it cannot cover.

Estimates by the Community Housing Improvement Program, another landlord group, suggest it would take $1 billion to cover the more than 129,000 pending applications and at least another $1 billion to cover renters who qualify but have yet to apply.

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The U.S. Department of the Treasury recently granted New York a measly $27 million to satisfy that debt (Hochul had requested $996 million). On Monday, Hochul, along with the governors of California, New Jersey and Illinois, sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen asking the federal government to reallocate unspent funds to communities with the greatest need beginning March 31. Hochul did not put a number on that ask.

Mayor Eric Adams echoed Hochul’s call Thursday, urging the Treasury to redirect unused rent relief funds from other states to New York. The Treasury estimated in December that $30 billion of the $46.55 billion pot of relief would have been spent or obligated by the end of 2021, CNN reported.

“New York has gotten the very short end of the stick,” Adams said.

Other landlord groups say that if the federal government cannot foot the bill, the state should step in.

New York received $18 billion in federal pandemic funding, only about a quarter of which has been spent, the Times Union reported last week.

CHIP Executive Director Jay Martin said Hochul should consider tapping those funds for rent relief when budget talks begin next week.

“The federal government might say, ‘You’re asking us for billions more, so why don’t you reallocate what we’ve already given you,’” Martin said.

Martin stressed that he does not see the portal’s reopening as a revival of the statewide moratorium.

“It is not a de facto moratorium,” he said. “They’re staying eviction proceedings on the idea that they will be able to pay back the debt.”

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