More than 5,000 NYCHA tenants have so far applied for rental assistance through New York’s COVID relief fund, prompting state officials and the public housing agency to begin work on a streamlined submission process to cover tens of millions of dollars in pandemic-related arrears.

Adi Talwar

A New York City Housing Authority building in the Ingersoll Housing complex near Downtown Brooklyn.

More than 5,000 NYCHA tenants have so far applied for rental assistance through New York’s COVID relief fund, prompting state officials and the public housing agency to begin work on a streamlined submission process to cover tens of millions of dollars in pandemic-related arrears.

But the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) applicants make up just a fraction of the total number of NYCHA households who have missed rent payments during the pandemic, according to housing authority records. As of June 30, NYCHA tenants owed $241 million in arrears, including $124 million accrued since March 2020 and eligible for ERAP funds. 

New York’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) Commissioner Michael Hein told state senators Thursday that ERAP will pay out private landlords before cutting a check for NYCHA. He said the $2.2 billion fund will cover all pandemic-related back rent for NYCHA if enough money is left over.

“It is our great hope that that will take place,” Hein said in a response to a question from Brooklyn Sen. Jabari Brisport. “We understand the importance of it.” 

OTDA and NYCHA have only recently begun creating a submission process outside the main application portal used by tenants and landlords of privately-owned buildings, according to lawmakers and the two agencies. But like other aspects of the rental assistance fund’s rollout, elected officials, tenants and their advocates say the NYCHA process should have offered more transparency earlier on for applicants concerned about their submission status.

The federally-funded ERAP covers up to a year of back rent for low-income tenants, including public housing residents, who missed payments as a result of the COVID crisis. The slow-moving fund has so far allocated $156 million—about 7 percent of the total—to landlords after cutting the first checks to property owners last month. Applications opened June 1. 

ERAP is intended to stop evictions and make landlords whole amid an historic public health and economic crisis. Some NYCHA tenants have told City Limits they worry about the status of their ERAP applications because the public housing agency had not completed the landlord portion or communicated with them about the submission.  

Sophie D., a Pomonok Houses resident who asked not to use her last name, said she applied for ERAP funds because she has missed her last three payments after getting laid off in July 2020. She said she was able to cover her family’s rent for several months despite the income loss but reached a breaking point in May and could no longer afford the payments. She said she applied for ERAP on June 3 but has been unable to get a firm answer from NYCHA, ERAP officials or state contractors about the status of her application.

“I am being told that there are no documents nor were there any ever uploaded by the landlord. [It’s] a bit confusing at this point now,” she told City Limits Thursday.

“It feels like a twilight zone moment, where one is stuck in between and unable to do anything,” she added. “Imagine those that don’t speak English at all, it must be like a total nightmare.”

A NYCHA spokesperson said the agency has completed the landlord portion of more than 1,000 tenant ERAP applications in order to receive reimbursement from the state. Tenants are not able to verify the status of the landlord application on the portal used by renters in privately-owned buildings statewide, the spokesperson added.

“NYCHA and the state established a process to submit NYCHA’s landlord documents in bulk for pending tenant applications and has already submitted documentation on behalf of more than 1,000 tenants,” they said. “Unfortunately, these bulk submissions happen outside of the state’s portal and so the application status for these submissions is not currently reflected in the portal, which is what tenants rely on to track their application.”

NYCHA has advised residents who complete their online ERAP application to send their application number and their date of birth to NYCHA at so that NYCHA can identify and work on their application. The public housing authority said the new, streamlined process will likely allow tenants to sign an agreement opting into NYCHA’s bulk submission, rather than have them complete the entire application process individually.

“NYCHA is committed to securing ERAP funding for eligible tenants and is actively assisting residents with the ERA program,” the agency’s spokesperson added. “To that end, NYCHA and OTDA have also been working to establish a streamlined process for its residents to apply for the program, which will likely be rolled out in the coming weeks.”

The process differs in developments converted to private management under the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). In those RAD developments, private property managers, known as Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) partners, are responsible for submitting the landlord portion of the ERAP application, NYCHA said. 

NYCHA said staff have mailed ERAP instructions to 9,517 PACT households. 

The RAD conversions are intended to unlock financing for needed repairs at public housing complexes, subject to decades of city, state and federal disinvestment. But the privatization has raised concerns about increased evictions. An analysis by City Limits found that one RAD operator evicted tenants at a higher rate than the NYCHA average. The Ocean Bay Houses in Arverne was the first complex converted to private management through RAD and accounted for more evictions than any other NYCHA campus in 2018 and early 2019, City Limits reported at the time. 

State Sen. Brian Kavanagh said NYCHA will almost certainly not evict residents because they couldn’t pay rent during the pandemic, especially with reimbursement forthcoming. But he said the state should have established the bulk application system sooner while informing NYCHA tenants about the different process.

“There’s not any moment where NYCHA was going to move against people who couldn’t pay during COVID,” said Kavanagh, who sponsored legislation to create the rent relief fund before it was included in the April state budget. “I and many others thought it would be silly for NYCHA to provide a separate set of application documents for every tenant.”

Black and Latino New Yorkers make up more than 90 percent of the more than 400,000 people officially living in NYCHA apartments—though the actual population may be closer to 600,000, with many residents not appearing on leases. 

Newly released data from OTDA highlights the impact of the COVID financial crisis on Black and Latino tenants. In New York City, more than 46 percent of ERAP applicants identified as Black or African American, while about 38 percent listed their ethnicity as Latino or Hispanic. The OTDA data does not account for overlap among people who identify as both. 

OTDA also released zip code-level application data for every county in New York. West Bronx zip code 10453 accounts for the most applications—3,170— in the state, followed by nearby Morrisania’s zip code 10456 with 3,011.

ERAP has been plagued by delays and glitches since its rollout June 1, though the state and its contractors have addressed some of the issues, like a failure to save and resume a lengthy application at a later time. 

Still, nonprofit providers, tenant advocates and landlord groups have highlighted persistent flaws for applicants across the state. 

Catholic Charities Community Service Director of Operations Lakisha Morris on Thursday urged OTDA to continue consulting with providers like her organization, which received a city contract to assist with tenant applications, in order to improve ERAP. 

“The Emergency Rental Assistance Program is a source of hope and long-awaited relief for those who have been victimized by economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Morris said “By working with providers to address the concerns highlighted in the testimony of those present today, the state can help avert an impending eviction crisis and accelerate its social and economic recovery.”