With the 18 buildings that Valentina Gojcaj owns or manages in the Bronx struggling with $ 787,000 in arrears from tenants who failed to pay rent during the pandemic, she has compiled a list of 53 residents owing more than $ 5,000. .
She then submitted the landlord side of the documents necessary for these people to have their rent paid by the federally funded $ 2.4 billion relief program.
But only four tenants, Gojcaj said, have so far done their part to apply for the program.
“We called them,” she said of the 53 tenants, adding that some told her, “Leave me alone and don’t bother me.
Lakisha Morris, who runs the Catholic Charities program that the city pays to help residents of much of Manhattan register for rent relief, sees the challenge much differently. While the association struggled to learn about the complicated process, it submitted 138 requests on behalf of clients and assisted 200 with the online portal.
“Tenants are starting to pay attention to the program,” she said. “We receive people without an appointment who wish to apply. “
Almost a month after the state officially opened applications for the rent relief program, real estate and tenant advocates agree the program is off to a rocky start due to frustrating technical difficulties in addition to a complicated process that can take two hours or more. .
But they disagree on whether most tenants are excited to take advantage of a program that will pay the equivalent of a year’s rent and guarantee no evictions for a year – or if some residents play with the system to extend the life in a dwelling. -free.
“I understand the real estate industry’s need for a bad tenant story, but nonprofits working on the program have been overwhelmed with tenants calling and trying to get help filling out applications,” said Ellen Davidson of The Legal Aid Society, which focused on helping undocumented New Yorkers apply.
Over 100,000 applications
The program, known as the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), is funded by money for rent relief allocated in December and Biden’s pandemic relief bills.
While real estate groups pressured Albany to approve the program earlier in the year, the legislature waited to pass the ERAP as part of the budget passed the first week of April. Landlords had also asked to be allowed to apply on behalf of tenants, but the state opted for a process that requires building owners and tenants to cooperate to get money from the program.
After a previous effort late last year raised very little money for tenants, the state turned the program over to the Temporary Help Office and People with Disabilities. The agency told THE CITY on Friday that the number of applications now exceeded 100,000.
To qualify, tenants behind on rent must earn less than 80% of the region’s median income and show that their income has been affected by the pandemic.
Technical issues arose almost immediately after applications opened on June 1.
Applications must be completed during an online session – an onerous requirement as many documents are required, including the tenant’s personal identification, social security numbers for all household members who have one, and proof of rental amount, income eligibility, residence and occupation. Landlords must submit a W-9 tax form, lease, rent roll, and banking information.
Downloading documents is infuriating because some days the system works and others don’t, say landlord and tenant advocates.
The owners were frustrated because in the beginning they had to establish an email address and a separate account for each building they own. Master accounts are now allowed. Gojcaj and his two office workers spent hours transferring all requests to a master account and submitting the documents.
Homeowners who seek help from the Rent Stabilization Association, a group of building owners, complain that they often don’t receive confirmation that a request has been submitted. Tenants say the call center is able to confirm whether a request is accepted.
“Difficult and time-consuming”
Nonprofits that work with tenants preach patience.
“The program is not as smooth as I would like it to be,” said Davidson. “The agency has continued to make changes and needs to do more and talk to people on the ground about difficult and time-consuming parts of the application.”
Some owners fear that many applications will be rejected due to technical issues. But Davidson believes the rejections will mostly be duplicate requests created when people weren’t able to complete the process all at once.
The Temporary Assistance and Disability Office maintains that the difficulties are not significant.
“Minimal technical issues are quickly resolved as they are encountered, and the application process continues,” Anthony Farmer, a spokesperson for the agency, said in a statement. “OTDA has undertaken an unprecedented effort to partner with local state governments to ensure that community-based organizations provide outreach and enforcement assistance while coordinating with communities that have received funding. rent relief directly from the federal government to leverage resources, increase efficiency, and prevent fraud.
Landlords and tenant advocates, meanwhile, differ in their accounts of residents’ responsiveness to the program.
“There is no emergency for tenants as the moratorium on evictions continues until August,” said Joe Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which expects most requests be filed in the fall.
Tenants’ advocates reject the suggestion.
BronxWorks, a nonprofit organization with a city contract to help tenants navigate the program, received 1,000 calls a day when the program opened. Call volume has fallen to around 300, but the agency expects a further increase when the moratorium on evictions expires in August, said Scott Auwarter, deputy executive director of the association.
No one knows how much rent New York owes, and it is not yet clear how much damage has been done to homeowners’ balance sheets or whether the rent program will stabilize their finances. Meanwhile, the city’s unemployment rate is nearly double the national average, with key employment sectors still struggling even as New York reopens.
The City Council’s Rent Guidelines last week approved a phased increase in rent-regulated apartments, satisfying neither landlords, who said it was not enough, nor tenants who called for a second consecutive freeze.
The state, meanwhile, has promised that the first payments of the ERAP will be made within the next three weeks.
“We need to withdraw the money quickly,” Strasbourg said. “Property taxes are due soon, water and sewer costs are rising and small homeowners are way behind in paying their bills. We cross fingers.”