Sadef Kully

The scene from a June protest by Housing Justice for All.

Taren Payne, a recent social work school grad, has so far helped 32 of her Harlem neighbors apply for assistance through New York’s new $2.4 billion rent relief program.

For weeks, the older adult applicants heard nothing about their submissions—until, that is, Payne got an email notice for one of the tenants and decided to help the others check their spam folders. It turned out that the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), the agency administering the program, had informed the renters that they needed to submit copies of their lease agreements to complete their applications.

“If it hadn’t happened directly with me, I wouldn’t have known they were asking for more information,” she says. “I found you have to be more involved with the process.”

Nonprofit legal service providers across New York City say they’re facing the same communication issues—multiplied by hundreds or even thousands of applicants. With seven weeks to go before state eviction protections expire, New York’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) has yet to cut a single check, and the organizations tasked with helping tenants say they’re hamstrung by inefficiencies as they work to help thousands submit their required forms.

“The applications we’re assisting with, we’re just blind,” says Scott Auwarter, assistant executive director at BronxWorks, one of nearly 30 organizations that outlined the problems in a letter to the state’s OTDA. “If there’s a problem, they’ll notify the tenant, but they won’t notify us.”

The ERAP process has been criticized for technical and structural flaws since its launch June 1, two months after state lawmakers set aside federal funding to reimburse landlords whose low- and middle-income tenants missed rent payments as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Chief among the issues: a concern that the online-only application process disadvantages people without internet access, computer literacy or English proficiency.

That’s where nonprofit groups and housing advocates come in, helping people make sense of the process and navigating an often daunting application. They have asked OTDA to provide access to a special account that would allow them to review all of the applications they helped clients submit and to share, with client consent, notifications sent to the applicants they assist.

OTDA met with the providers for a tightly-controlled virtual presentation earlier this month, but have not instituted the proposed reforms.

Despite the many issues, OTDA says the portal is clearly working: New Yorkers submitted 119,209 applications over the first month, including 91,457 forms to cover back rent in New York City, according to the agency’s June summary report, which says some people have made duplicate submissions.

“The more than 100,000 applications already received are being reviewed and prioritized, with the first payments expected to go out in the coming weeks,” says OTDA spokesperson Anthony Farmer.

Nonprofit officials question how many of those applications are actually invalid.

“We see the big number they have but we don’t know how many of those are duplicate applications and invalid applications. And they’re not going to know what’s invalid or not because they’re processing it now,” said attorney Justin La Mort, a supervisor at the organization Mobilization For Justice.

“A lot of this will depend on how they go about making approvals. We’ve gotten some feedback on documents, but we haven’t started getting denials or acceptances yet,” he added.

In response to a question about the valid submissions, Farmer, the OTDA spokesperson, provided a version of his previous statement and pointed to the monthly reports mandated by the state legislature.

State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, who sponsored legislation to create a rental relief program, says he has encouraged OTDA to take up advocates’ calls for improvement.

“They’ve been slow to set up a process where they’re getting the full range of feedback,” Kavanagh says. “They’ve had active discussions with certain organizations, but earlier in this process they should have set up a town hall meeting structure. These are organizations that are actually contracted by the government to do this work and they’re not feeling that OTDA is hearing them.”

He says he is disappointed that the state has yet to allocate any funding but believes OTDA when they say they’ll soon start sending money to landlords. Those checks will restore confidence in the program, he says.

“The system is receiving about 4,000 applications a day and it’s critical that the $2.4 billion we allocated for this program get out the door,” Kavanagh says, adding that he thinks OTDA will overlook minor flaws with applications. “They understand the goal is to get relief into people’s hands and not to have an overly restrictive interpretation of the law.”

A litany of inefficiencies

BronxWorks is one of 11 organizations across the five boroughs that will receive a total of $22 million dollars from New York City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) to step up application assistance. The money will go toward hiring extra staff to help tenants complete their forms and target outreach in underserved communities.

A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services (DSS), which oversees HRA, said the state provided the money for the city to distribute to the nonprofits, along with an additional $2 million to pay for promotion, educational workshops and other services. BronxWorks has not yet received the nearly $5.2 million included in its contract and DSS says they expect the city will pay them by the end of the month.

Auwarter says he is confident the money will come through, but adds that the structure of the state program makes it hard for organizations like his to identify and solve recurring issues, even when they hire more staff members to work with applicants. 

“At a certain point, there’s going to be a significant amount of money invested in groups like ours but we can’t see anything, we can’t keep track, we can’t see if we’re successful or not,” he says. “It just seems strange. How are we supposed to hold ourselves accountable? How do we know if we have someone making the same mistake over and over and over again?”

BronxWorks and 28 other organizations raised that issue in their letter to OTDA July 3. They said the current program structure excludes the New Yorkers most at risk of becoming homeless, like people earning below 50 percent of Area Median Income ($59,650 for a family of four, $41,800 for a single person), people with serious illnesses and disabilities, and older adults, who are less likely to have reliable internet access or the tech skills to navigate an application process that takes over an hour, and must be completed in one sitting.

They also pointed out the inefficiencies affecting the organizations helping hundreds or even thousands of applicants, like a lack of zip code-level data that would allow them to focus outreach in areas where relatively few people have applied. Still, the organizations have a general idea of where to target their efforts: Eviction filings have spiked in the very same low-income communities of color where COVID-19 rates have been highest, like Corona, Queens and much of the Bronx, according to data mapped by the Eviction Lab.

The applications are crucial for halting an eviction. By submitting their forms, tenants and landlords freeze housing court eviction proceedings and monetary judgements, but first, the judge must know about the application.   

There is no uniform document to demonstrate that, but Legal Aid Society staff attorney Ellen Davidson says tenants have stayed their cases by providing their ERAP application number to the court or by showing the judge an email saying they successfully applied. Legal Aid was one of the groups that signed the letter to OTDA. 

La Mort, the supervising attorney at Mobilization For Justice, said he too has encountered judges willing to accept informal proof or who will use a tenant’s application number and date of birth to verify their submission and stay their case.

When asked about proof of application in Housing Court, Farmer, the OTDA spokesperson, pointed to the Frequently Asked Questions section of the ERAP website indicating that tenants will receive written notification of the available rental assistance even if their landlords do not respond. They may present the notification in Housing Court as a defense to stop monetary judgements or evictions based on non-payment of rent during the pandemic months covered by ERAP.

In their letter and in interviews, the nonprofit providers highlighted a number of other issues they say make the process prone to error and opacity.

Jose Abrigo, a supervising attorney at Manhattan Legal Services, says OTDA does not send a confirmation to let people know they have completed their application correctly and he worries many people will have to fix their submissions weeks or months later.

“You kind of submit an application into the ether and hope you did it correctly,” Abrigo says.

He says he hopes state officials are flexible when it comes to approving applications. 

“ERAP is really great and provides a lot of great protections and we realize OTDA had to cobble this together in a rush to implement this for hundreds of thousands of people. But that being said, the system is pretty buggy,” he says. “We’re hoping that OTDA, because the process wasn’t articulated clearly, they’d be pretty forgiving and would be willing to amend those mistakes.”

The letter to OTDA urged the agency to provide applicants with a copy of their completed forms so they can determine what information or documents they may have missed or how their submission differed from the materials sent in by landlords. 

And the groups asked OTDA to provide an explicit time frame for when applicants will learn if they have been approved or denied.

“An important part of our advocacy is to inform tenants what to expect once we have submitted their ERAP application so they can rest assured that the process is transparent and fair,” the letter states.

Representatives from the various organizations attended a virtual session with OTDA officials on July 8 to discuss the issues, but three attendees described a WebEx presentation that left participants unable to see who else was in the meeting or what questions had been entered into a chat window. 

“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,” said Farmer, the OTDA spokesperson.

Landlord groups have also described persistent problems with the application process, like the inability to save progress and resume at a later time and the challenge of tracking potentially hundreds of forms.  

The wait is only compounding debts for small property owners and their tenants, says Community Housing Improvement Program Executive Director Jay Martin, whose organization represents small landlords accounting for hundreds of thousands of rent-stabilized units. 

He said he fears another extension of current eviction protections, which would plunge tenants and landlords into deeper financial troubles. The current freeze expires Aug. 31. 

“We can’t keep extending the eviction moratorium because we’re not solving any problems, we’re just adding debts,” Martin said. “This is debt they have to worry about and could haunt people for decades.”

Martin criticized the slow process and the lack of pay outs, three months after the state included ERAP in the latest budget.

“It’s bad politics. If I’m a politician and say I have $2 billion to help you I want to get this money out as soon as possible to be a hero,” Martin said. “It’s been a disaster.”