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Immigrants struggle to access the state's rent relief application, advocates say

Long Island renters have had trouble applying for

Long Island renters have had trouble applying for a state rent relief program, advocates say. Credit: Newsday File/Kevin Coughlin

The state is accepting emergency rent relief applications, but renters —  and particularly immigrants —  have struggled with the submission process, Long Island social services organizations said. 

The state has given tenants two weeks to fill out a 14-page form and gather supporting documents requested by Homes and Community Renewal, the agency overseeing the COVID Rent Relief Program. New York will issue one-time subsidy payments to cover a portion of selected tenants’ rent for up to four months.

The COVID Rent Relief Program malfunctioned early in the two-week application window, which began July 16 and ends July 30, according to Pilar Moya-Mancera, executive director of Housing Help Inc., a Huntington Station nonprofit that helps families access affordable housing and develop financial skills. 

"Within an hour, it crashed,” Moya-Mancera said. 

New Yorkers were briefly unable to access the application portal because the number of users seeking to log in to state systems surpassed anti-fraud limits, according to HCR. The agency said it increased the site's capacity and has not heard of further issues.

The program’s website initially featured descriptions exclusively in English and a digital application tool in English. The site now offers information in Spanish and a digital application in Spanish.

But forms available in other languages must be downloaded, printed and filled out in English, before being mailed to a Farmingdale address. 

"That assumes that these immigrants own printers, which I can tell you, many of them do not," Moya-Mancera said, noting that her organization has been trying to help Central American and Haitian immigrants with forms over the phone and through video conferencing. "And then it needs to be completed in English."

HCR has listed community groups that may be able to help with translation on the program's website, according to a news release issued Thursday. The agency is also running a call center that can assist residents, including those with limited English proficiency, at 1-833-499-0318 or covidrentrelief@hcr.ny.gov. 

“Before the program launched, HCR began conducting advanced outreach to regional community organizations and state partners who serve constituencies that are most vulnerable, and we can see those results in the 42,000 applications, to date, that have been completed," HCR spokeswoman Charni Sochet said Friday in a statement. "We are working to ensure the application process is inclusive and that all eligible New Yorkers are able to apply, regardless of their proficiency in English.”

The rent relief is available to households that were rent-burdened before COVID-19 hit and have since lost income, provided that at least one member of the household is a citizen or has eligible immigration status. This excludes immigrants living in the country without legal permission, who have been particularly hard hit by the virus and economic downturn, according to Martha Maffei, executive director of SEPA Mujer, a Patchogue-based nonprofit focused on supporting immigrant women.

Maffei said Long Islanders with an informal leasing arrangement may also struggle to access the program. Tenants without leases are eligible for the assistance, but must provide proof of a rental obligation or complete a form attesting to the specifics of their situation, according to the program's website. 

“There are many apartments that are illegal, so landlords won’t sign this kind of documentation,” Maffei said. “All this — the stimulus checks and programs — is just not targeting the people that are in the most vulnerable situations.”

State  lawmakers earmarked $100 million from federal coronavirus relief funds for the one-time payments, which will be sent directly to selected tenants’ landlords. The federal funding comes with the requirements that exclude undocumented immigrants, HCR said.

The state said applications will be prioritized based on tenants' risk of homelessness and financial need, not on a first-come, first-serve basis. The application and more information is available at hcr.ny.gov/RRP.  

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