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More than 60% of applicants denied NY’s rent relief

ALBANY — More than 60% of the 94,000 applicants who sought the state’s help covering unpaid rent were rejected because they didn’t meet the criteria for eligibility, resulting in less than half of the rent relief funds being doled out to financially struggling New Yorkers.

Roughly 15,000 applicants received a collective $40 million in rent relief that will be paid to landlords across New York, leaving roughly $60 million in allocated federal funds for the COVID-19 Rent Relief Program on the table. The bulk of those payments will go to downstate landlords, with about $19.5 million earmarked for tenants in Queens, Kings, Bronx or New York counties, a report on the rent relief program compiled by the state Division of Homes and Community Renewal shows.

The Capital Region landlords — encompassing the counties of Albany, Rensselaer, Schenectady and Saratoga — so far will see less than $150,000 in rent relief to cover unpaid housing costs, the report shows.

United Tenants of Albany Executive Director Laura Felts on Monday was unsurprised by the lack of fiscal relief for upstate tenants, and noted the nonprofit — which helps tenants during a housing crisis — wasn’t aware of many applying for assistance or successfully receiving any.

“We heard the money was really going to be prioritized in New York City and that people upstate were not going to see much help from it,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people are overwhelmingly not able to access the money in a meaningful way.”

As COVID-19 descended upon the state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered non-essential businesses closed, which resulted in about 2 million New Yorkers losing their jobs during the height of the pandemic. In response, the state Legislature approved $100 million in federal CARES Act funds for the COVID-19 Rent Relief Program to stave off mass evictions once COVID-restrictions, like the eviction moratorium, are lifted.

Legislators acknowledged early on that the $100 million allotted for the program would not go far enough, but remarked that without additional federal aid, New York would be unable to expand and further fund the assistance.

Less than half of the allotted funding has been allocated to eligible New Yorkers, but state officials continue to review applications to determine if others meet the criteria.

“We continue to issue payments on a weekly basis. In order to finalize many applications, we are asking residents and landlords to respond to our emails and phone calls, and to supply the documentation needed to approve and pay all eligible claims,” Homes and Community Renewal spokesman Brian Butry said in an emailed statement. “We are continuing to evaluate the remaining applications to determine if there are any more that meet the Legislature’s narrow requirements.”

It’s likely legislators will revisit the program criteria to see why so many were deemed ineligible and make adjustments.

To qualify for funding, a tenant’s household income must be below 80% of the area’s median income prior to March 7; a renter must have lost income between April 1 and July 31; and the tenant’s household must have been rent burdened — paying more than 30% of gross monthly income toward rent — prior to March 7.

Manhattan Democratic Sen. Brian Kavanagh, who carried the rent relief bill, said the initial criteria was created to ensure the neediest New Yorkers received assistance.

“We’ll want to understand better why people were found ineligible,” Kavanagh said, adding that perhaps the applicant wasn’t rent burdened prior to the pandemic or they received enough government aid to disqualify them for rent relief. “We’re going to be looking for better ways to measure whether the amount of resources that have been allocated in each county is proportionate to the need in that county.”

Typically, the greatest rent burden resides in the downstate communities, where a tenant might be lucky to find a studio apartment for $1,500 per month. (Average monthly rent varies greatly, depending on what part of New York City or outside suburbs a tenant resides.)

But local property owners say upstate tenants and landlords have been hit and need fiscal relief, too.

New York Capital Region Apartment Association President Deborah Pusatere said she owns about 80 apartment units throughout the area and only one of her tenants received rent relief despite a clear need.

“And the assistance she got was only two months’ worth of rent,” Pusatere said, noting the tenant had sought assistance for four months of rent. “I look at the eligibility requirements and I personally think they’re a little stringent. The other problem, you look at what they have to do to apply. … I don’t know if there was enough thought put into how to reach these people.”

The one tenant who received rental assistance couldn’t afford cable and internet services, and so applying to the program was cumbersome, Pusatere said.

The Capital Region landlord said including rental-property owners in the discussion on the program, process and eligibility requirements could have helped address some of the issues. If property owners are involved in the process, Pusatere said, they could help tenants submit the proper paperwork.

Indeed, the application process was challenging, and in response, Homes and Community Renewal developed a call center to answer applicant questions and keep them informed as to the status of payments. The center received over 265,000 calls from tenants and landlords, and made thousands of outbound calls to landlords to acquire necessary tax documentation.

Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, concurred the application process was burdensome for tenants and echoed past sentiments on the program: It was not enough.

“The rent issue, as it relates to COVID, is massive and what we did was a drop in the bucket, and it was too difficult to qualify,” he said. “We ended up with some inadequate solution because we weren’t willing to do what was necessary to solve the problem.”

Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, D-Albany, agreed more assistance is necessary, but emphasized that supporting the local economy can help address the pending housing crises.

“The thing that is most important is to keep some of these businesses afloat to keep workers on the payroll,” she said. “Housing is going to be huge, but keeping people employed and keeping some of these small businesses afloat is a way to stem the problem.”

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