Who, Where, How: Mapping Pandemic Rent Aid Across NY

Date: May 20, 2022

Publication: Law360

Jada, a subway conductor from the Bronx, remembers how tight her family’s finances were after the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City in 2020.

“Everything was backed up — rent, ConEdison — what I had to do was suspend both of my daughters’ [phone] lines to keep me and my husband’s lines active,” she told Law360 in February.

So Jada was relieved when Wavecrest Management emailed her last summer, encouraging her to apply for New York’s $2.4 billion federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or ERAP.

In September, her landlord received $25,590 to cover 15 months of rent, including 12 she’d missed and three prospective payments.

“This is the first landlord company that I’ve had that has been ready, willing and able to help in any way that they could,” Jada, a pseudonym to respect her privacy, said of Wavecrest. “I know I wouldn’t have gotten it if they hadn’t done their part.”

The Bronx has the state’s highest estimated density of renter households who, based on their low income, may qualify for ERAP. And, among that population, the county has seen a higher application rate than any other: nearly 22%.

Its relative success in generating applications helps illustrate a positive relationship that Law360 found through analysis of state-generated ERAP progress reports and U.S. Census data — the higher the percentage of low-income households in a given area, the higher the application rate tended to be among those households.

The positive relationship between low-income renter density and high application rate is an overall trend among New York’s 62 counties and for the individual ZIP codes within New York City, where the majority of applications have originated.

“This has been, by and large, a very successful program in reaching the communities that were likely to be the hardest-hit,” said Peter Hepburn, associate sociology professor at Rutgers University and a research fellow at Princeton University‘s Eviction Lab.

“We should be very careful not to take for granted that money will naturally flow toward those communities,” he added, as there are “significant barriers to distributing money like this, especially with an entirely new program.”

Models cannot encompass all the complexity of a real-world program like ERAP, the outcomes of which are determined by the moment-to-moment decisions and unique circumstances of individual people.

Nor is it comprehensive to assess ERAP simply on the basis of tenant application rates. Each submission does not necessarily translate to funds in a landlord’s pocket or an eviction diverted.

But analyzing those rates is a helpful entry point. Across several months of interviews, New Yorkers in exemplary regions — with application rates well above or below our models’ bright-red prediction, or “best fit,” lines — helped us better understand barriers to submission, as well as the strategies, resources and relationships that helped drive application rates up.

Critical Collaboration

U.S. localities received federal funding for pandemic rent aid across two packages totaling more than $46 billion. ERAP is one of the largest locally managed programs to come out of the effort and has been managed by New York’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, or OTDA, since it launched on June 1 of last year.

Although rent payments are issued directly to landlords — up to 12 missed months and three prospective months — eligibility hinges on tenant circumstances: not just their household income, but whether the pandemic impacted their finances and if they currently live in the apartment for which the landlord is seeking to recoup.

Tenants and landlords can submit documents independent of one another — our map tracks unique tenant applications — but collaboration between the parties seems to have smoothed the process, from the Bronx to the city of Buffalo in western New York.

Susan Camerata is chief financial officer at Wavecrest, which assisted Jada with her application. According to the management company, about 5,000 apartments in its portfolio had applied for ERAP as of March, more than 3,300 of which are in the Bronx.

“We sent out letters, e-blasts, conducted phone calls, created a pop-up message in our resident portal, set up informational tables … and provided information in rent bills, all to inform residents of the ERAP opportunity,” Camerata told Law360 at the time.

This sort of enthusiasm appears to have saved time for community organizations that received a portion of ERAP funding for program outreach and assistance.

Melanie Johnson, housing file administrator with the Buffalo Urban League, told Law360 in May she was grateful for multiple local management companies that actively participated in the program, saying when she called requesting a document on behalf of a tenant, “they uploaded it and sent it right back.”

Tricia O’Hara is a partner at Beacon Management in Buffalo. She told Law360 she helped tenants submit more than 40 applications.

“I was 100% on board. I thought it would be a great way to keep people around and avoid eviction at all cost,” O’Hara said.

By contrast, multiple community outreach workers told Law360 they encountered hesitation from landlords, some of whom were skeptical of government programs, rented out illegal apartments, would rather evict their tenant, or did not want to submit the prerequisite W-9 tax document in order to receive federal funds.

Ju-Bum Cha is a senior consultant at MinKwon Center for Community Action in Flushing, Queens. Looking at New York City ZIP codes with a median income below the citywide median, two in Flushing have seen among the lowest application rates as compared to our model’s line of best fit — Murray Hill and Queensboro Hill.

“From what we’ve seen with tenants who say their landlords don’t want to participate in the program, some landlords who get their rent in cash can’t properly prepare proof documents including W-9,” Cha told Law360 in May.

Tenants could also complicate the process. Micah Beck, a landlord with nine properties in the city of Ithaca, described a total communication breakdown with one tenant who stopped paying rent in August 2020. “We had to take her to court to even get her to talk to me,” he recalled in April.

Even in the absence of overt resistance to ERAP, community groups said efforts to put tenants and landlords in touch with each other proved time-consuming. In some instances, Cha said, he encountered language barriers.

“Some of the landlords are Chinese but the tenants are Korean, so that causes serious communication problems,” he said.

Technology Troubles

Across New York, Sullivan County has exceeded its predicted application rate by the largest margin, reaching 18% of its low-income renters. Staff at a local nonprofit told Law360 they prioritized rural renters who they knew had limited internet access and would have a hard time completing the online-only application.

“Essentially what we did is obtained laptop computers and portable scanners and sent advocates to the community,” said Vanessa Sotelo, assistant executive director at Action Toward Independence Inc. “We had [access to] a bus with Wi-Fi connection, and we made ourselves available to assist people with applying.”

Even in areas with ample internet access, limited technology literacy proved a challenge. This was true for Jesus Marte, a tenant from the hamlet of Moriches in Brookhaven — the largest town in Suffolk County on Long Island, which exceeded its expected application rate.

“When it comes to stuff like that, I’m not a computer-, gadget-type of person,” Marte told Law360 in March. But he was able to get help with his application at the Family Service League, one of eight organizations assisting with ERAP applications in Brookhaven alone.

In some instances, the internet proved a helpful outreach tool. For example, Jennifer Hernandez, a lead organizer with Make The Road New York, said her group hosted Facebook Live videos in Spanish, walking people through the application step by step. Her organization has a large membership base in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Jackson Heights, Queens.

Yet Hernandez predicted her group would have been able to assist more people if the application were simpler. ERAP’s online portal was also glitchy, particularly early on. She compared ERAP to the Excluded Workers Fund, another pandemic aid program serving undocumented New Yorkers.

“That application was a piece of cake,” Hernandez said. “We could get through an application in 20 minutes, where the rent relief application was taking two hours, two and a half hours.”

Mixed Messaging

Since last fall, community groups have had to adapt to a rollercoaster of updates about ERAP’s accessibility and funding levels.

The application portal closed to most of the state in November, when Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a push for more funding from Washington. Then a state judge forced it back open in January, saying tenants should be able to keep applying in the hopes those funds would eventually materialize.

The portal remains open today, but Law360 heard reports of a drop-off in interest. Though ERAP saw a significant $800 million boost from state lawmakers in April, there was a lengthy dry spell through the fall and winter when additional federal funding fell far short of the state’s need.

Bryan Lee is a program manager of workforce development at Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York Inc., which assists ERAP applicants across Queens. “We used to have lines outside our doors from the launch until that November date, but after that we’ve slowed down,” he told Law360 in May.

Significantly, tenants who apply to ERAP cannot be evicted while their application is pending — a benefit that several New York City organizations, including Lee’s, incorporated into their messaging.

Joscelyn Truitt is vice president of empowerment at RiseBoro Community Partnership, which serves Brooklyn neighborhoods with high application rates, including East New York and Brownsville. In February, she told Law360 tenants were still motivated to apply for ERAP once they understood the accompanying eviction protections.

“I believe that the lack of funding is less of a deterrent when folks understand that just submitting an application can possibly help them in housing court,” she said.

Reliable Resources

Rev. Karen Jackson is director of community initiatives at Project Hospitality in Staten Island, another New York county to exceed its predicted application rate by a wide margin.

Like nonprofit and government workers in other high-performing regions, Jackson credited her organization’s established relationships in the community, including at help centers where families come to apply for food and cash assistance and Medicaid, as well as to seek legal representation.

“We are trusted by the exact sorts of people who might have been the most impacted financially — like domestic workers, day laborers, home health care workers who may speak English as a second language,” Jackson said.

Gwen O’Shea, president and CEO of the Community Development Corporation of Long Island, said her organization is also trusted locally as a rental assistance and subsidized housing provider.

But the majority of Nassau County on the western end of Long Island opted out of ERAP to administer local programs, creating a patchwork O’Shea said generated confusion. Nassau has among the lowest ERAP application rates among its eligible households, compared to our model’s prediction.

“One of the biggest challenges was the multiple sources of support — the acronyms related to them, the requirements,” O’Shea recalled. “People coming out of COVID were super, super overwhelmed … with not knowing who to go to.”

One backstop that appears to have proven effective in some parts of the state is housing court.

For example, in the Bronx, Mobilization for Justice senior staff attorney Amanda O’Keefe recalled the regularity with which housing court judges in the borough directed tenants to apply for the benefit, especially last summer.

“It was almost like cases were coming through the court system and the only goal was to get them on ERAP,” O’Keefe told Law360 in March.

Clamoring Questions

As of mid-May, about $1.95 billion has been distributed to landlords through ERAP across 154,364 payments, according to the OTDA, the program’s administrator.

“Having now distributed nearly $2 billion, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program has helped stabilize housing for tens of thousands of low-income New Yorkers, including some of the most vulnerable and marginalized among us,” an agency spokesperson wrote in a statement to Law360.

The agency added that remaining funding — including the additional $800 million in state money — will be distributed “over the next several months.” But as applications continue to be accepted, there is no guarantee that all those who qualify will be funded.

This is especially true for about 45,000 applicants living in public and subsidized housing. Under the 2021 state law that created ERAP, they are relegated to the back of the service line.

The decision was a compromise with then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had sought to exclude households whose rent is government-subsidized, according to a staffer for state Senate Housing Committee Chair Brian Kavanagh. Kavanagh is sponsoring legislation that would eliminate the status, but its fate is currently unknown.

Aixa Torres is president of the resident association at the Alfred E. Smith Houses in Lower Manhattan, part of the New York City Housing Authority. “Clearly we’ve been discriminated against,” she told Law360 this month. “There’s no other word.”

And for landlords still awaiting payment, each month compounds stress. Beck, the Ithaca landlord, described a “long, drawn-out nightmare” with the tenant he brought to housing court last year, whose application has been pending since October and who hasn’t paid rent for more than a year and a half.

The OTDA has only published ERAP payment data down to the county level, making even preliminary analysis of program outcomes difficult. Agency estimates from mid-May provide just a rough, statewide snapshot.

But once all funding has been distributed, experts say, it will be important to study those applications left over: how many ultimately didn’t qualify and why, and how many simply lost out because the coffers ran dry.

This could help New York prepare for the next, inevitable emergency, according to Hepburn of Rutgers University.

ERAP “was by no means perfect from the get-go, but has developed into a pretty successful program for distributing rental assistance,” he said. “And there’s a lot to be said for trying to build on that success.”

For those who have watched ERAP unfold, such an emergency isn’t hard to imagine. O’Keefe, the Bronx lawyer, has clients who successfully applied but have fallen behind on rent once more.

“It’s a Band-Aid,” O’Keefe said. “It does temporarily prevent eviction and resolve some balances, but if the rent is too high and the incomes are too low, at the end of the day, the issue is going to persist.”

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