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Only a tiny fraction of rental relief has reached LI landlords and tenants, officials say

Alina Lechowicz, a single mother in Centereach, spoke

Alina Lechowicz, a single mother in Centereach, spoke with Newsday Tuesday about how her hours were cut during the pandemic, and her financial struggles during this time. She plans to apply for aid through the Treasury Department's Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The federal government has provided more than $90 million in rent relief for Long Island renters and landlords, but only about 1% has reached its targets, Newsday has learned.

With a total of $94.3 million set aside for the Island — most from federal stimulus packages passed to provide timely help to those reeling from the economic impact of the pandemic — state, county and town governments have distributed $1 million, government officials said.

The officials said distribution has been delayed because they had to navigate complex and evolving rules. They believe a second round of relief programs will be more efficient and effective because they are funded through a U.S. Treasury Department initiative specifically designed for struggling residential tenants, rather than general federal aid.

What to Know

  • More than $90 million in rental assistance is available.
  • Only 1% has been distributed to LI tenants and landlords.
  • Officials say cumbersome program requirements are to blame. 
  • The state plans to open applications for a new relief program soon.

Government officials and housing advocates also said they believe many tenants have not applied for help because they are still protected by a state eviction moratorium that will be in effect until at least the end of August.

But many tenants and landlords — who, under most programs, are the ones who directly receive the aid — say they are growing impatient. Some who have applied complain that the application process is too cumbersome, requiring notarized forms and in some cases taking months to complete.

Money has arrived through two funding streams. Some came last year, under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act stimulus package. The state, Nassau and Suffolk counties and some towns decided to use a portion of the CARES Act assistance they received to fund rental relief programs. Of the $10.3 million set aside strictly for Long Islanders, $488,484 has been awarded, according to figures Newsday reviewed from two state agencies, Nassau and Suffolk counties and three towns.

The second funding stream opened this year. The Treasury Department began issuing money to local and state governments under an aid initiative called the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Most LI municipalities are relying on the state to award their share of the funding to their residents, but the state has not yet opened its application process. Only $537,392 of the $84 million earmarked for Long Island has been distributed, by one town — Islip — that is handling its own program rather than using the state's system.

More money is on the way. The Treasury Department announced May 7 that an additional $21.6 billion in Emergency Rental Assistance Program aid will be sent to states and localities across the nation. It's not clear when Long Island localities will get their share of the money.

While some states began distributing the emergency funds months ago, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has defended New York's rollout.

"These are massive, complicated programs," he said this month. "... You have to write regulations. You have to make sure there’s no fraud. You have to send out the application."

Still waiting to apply

Alina Lechowicz, a single mother in Centereach, said she had expected a portal allowing applications for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program would be set up by now. Lechowicz has had her work hours cut in half at her job in the medical field. She's fallen a few months behind on her $1,400 rent, which she says has made it difficult for her mother, who is her landlord, to pay the mortgage.

"She was relying on my salary," said Lechowicz. "I have to really budget and all my bills are behind … It’s very stressful, obviously sleepless nights."

There is limited data on how many Long Islanders are behind on rent. Across the metro area, 17.2% of households polled as part of the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey indicated they were behind, according to the April 28-May 10 analysis, the most recent one available.

Tenants are struggling, but may be too overwhelmed to seek aid, said Gwen O'Shea, president and CEO of the Community Development Corporation of Long Island, a nonprofit affordable housing group that's distributing funding for some localities.

"I compare this time frame, in some ways, to post-Sandy, Superstorm Sandy," O'Shea said. "There was significant community outreach and engagement that had to take place to really help people that had been just so impacted by the disaster."

Five months for a $2,500 check

With the CARES Act funding it received, the state launched a rent relief program in summer 2020. The state extended the initial application period from two to three weeks when tenants said they needed more time to fill out a 14-page form and gather supporting documents. With the bulk of relief funds unused, the state reopened applications in late 2020. Less than half of the $100 million available statewide — $47.5 million — had been used as of May 12, according to the state agency overseeing the program.

After the state’s rollout, Nassau, Suffolk, Babylon, Brookhaven and Huntington launched similar rental assistance initiatives, which were largely funded with CARES Act money distributed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Only some of the governments have started sending out money: Nassau has awarded $275,000 of $6 million; Brookhaven has distributed $148,484 in rental assistance of $2.01 million set aside for tenant and mortgage relief, government officials said. Distribution has been impaired by strict funding and documentation requirements and the eviction moratorium, which some officials believe has kept tenants from prioritizing their unpaid rent.

"We anticipated having stronger demand for the funding," Kevin Crean, director of the Nassau County Office of Community Development, said of the initiative, which had 200 cases to review as of May 4. "Part of the reason why the demand may be tamped down right now, where we're not seeing a surge in applications, is because of the eviction moratorium — there is not the urgency for tenants to become current with their rent at present."

The Town of Huntington started a rental assistance initiative with the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island in August, according to Community Development Agency director Leah Jefferson. When only five or six applications were submitted, the town redirected $75,000 to the Family Service League of Long Island to support homeless people, Jefferson said.

Suffolk County’s $600,000 initiative has taken a while to get off the ground — many of the 141 applications received were deemed incomplete or ineligible, according to Rebecca Sinclair, Suffolk County deputy commissioner of economic development and planning. About $65,000 has been awarded to 30 households so far, the county said.

The county can't spend the Department of Housing and Urban Development assistance in towns that received their own allocations; the bulk of the money must generally benefit low- or moderate-income communities. The geographic restrictions can be confusing for Suffolk residents to sort through, Sinclair said. She noted that HUD funds are traditionally used for projects, so applying the funding to households has been cumbersome.

"You're taking these individuals and putting them through a process designed for broader, bigger projects," Sinclair said. "We’ve learned a lot."

Tenants have not found the process any easier. Donna, a Smithtown tenant who did not want her last name used, applied to the county's rent relief program in December. After multiple rounds of filling out the same forms, getting them notarized and visiting the post office to pay for more secure delivery options, Donna said her landlord received a $2,500 check this month.

Her payment is the maximum allowed under Suffolk's program, but doesn't cover her $3,400 monthly rent. Donna said she has a good relationship with her landlord, but she worries about those with less cooperative landlords.

"When we got the last round of papers … he said, 'I'm not doing anything more, Donna — too much.' And I don't blame him," she said, noting he did ultimately fill out the forms. "Five months for a stupid $2,500 check? It’s ridiculous."

State loosens restrictions

Relief payments through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program may cover up to 12 months of unpaid rent and utility bills, and in some cases, three additional months of rent — dramatically more extensive relief than prior programs. Households that suffered a financial hardship due to COVID-19 and earn no more than 80% of the Island's annual median income currently $94,900 for a family of four — may qualify.

The state put a different agency in charge of the program and announced several steps to make aid more accessible. In certain cases, tenants won't need traditional proof of their income and may instead attest to their situation. The office said it expects to begin taking applications by the end of the month.

Tenants have a better chance to get help through this program, according to Vivian Storm, spokeswoman for Nassau Suffolk Law Services, which provides free legal representation to those in need.

"The eligibility criteria are better designed to identify people who are in need, and in an appropriate way, without limiting who is eligible based on, for example, whether their landlord is willing to get a lead paint inspection," Storm said. "It's going to be a much more beneficial program for our clients."

Both counties and four towns that received federal funding — Babylon, Brookhaven, Huntington and North Hempstead — will be collaborating with the state. The localities will send their money to the state, which will use one system to distribute the funding, officials said.

The alliance approach will maximize the amount of assistance that gets to those in need by consolidating the cost of program administration, according to Jefferson, of the Huntington Community Development Agency.

"A lot of the companies that do the software are very, very expensive. They wanted 7% of our entire allotment," Jefferson said, noting that localities may only spend 10% of their funding on administration. "I would still have to hire or pay an organization to do the outreach."

Several towns with smaller populations did not receive their own Emergency Rental Assistance Program funding, including East Hampton, Riverhead, Shelter Island, Smithtown, Southampton and Southold. Residents of those towns who qualify may be eligible to receive aid through the state's program.

Three towns tailor their own programs

Three Long Island towns — Hempstead, Islip and Oyster Bay — opted to administer their own programs to distribute their funds rather than participating in the state alliance. Residents of these towns will not be eligible for the state's $1.6 billion pot of funding. In areas working with the state, residents may be able to access this aid after their localities' funding is handed out.

Hempstead will rely on Long Island Housing Partnership, a nonprofit focused on affordable housing, to distribute its almost $22.8 million; Oyster Bay plans to work with a community-based organization to distribute its nearly $8.9 million, town officials said.

Islip began accepting applications on March 22 and has fielded 530, according to Community Development Agency executive director James Bowers. So far, $537,392 of the nearly $9.8 million received has been awarded, he said.

The town's initial distribution criteria were unclear and risked overlooking Latino and Black residents, according to an April 27 letter to Bowers from the civil rights group LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the nonprofit legal group Empire Justice Center and the fair housing organization Long Island Housing Services. The groups said they'd seen two different sets of eligibility criteria without dates to indicate which one was in force, so they sought clarity and suggested changes to make the program more equitable.

"If it’s unclear to us, it’s certainly going to be unclear to your constituents," said Nathalia Varela, associate counsel at LatinoJustice. "My job is to monitor these situations, and I have a law degree."

Some of Islip's materials said applicants must be a citizen or "qualified resident alien," although these statuses are not required by federal or state rules, the letter noted. It also highlighted a lack of resources in Spanish, more intensive documentation standards than necessary and a requirement that tenants had no rental arrears before their current financial difficulty.

"Latino and Black renters were more likely to be in rental arrears before the pandemic, so clearly the pandemic only exacerbated that situation. This [is] going to preclude them from even applying," Varela said.

Asked to comment, Islip referred Newsday to its development agency's website, which has been updated with revised guidelines. The new rules, which are published in English and Spanish, address many of the concerns raised in the letter. The town will still limit relief to landlords who have a rental permit.

Housing attorney Warren M. Berger said he's only had one client — in the Town of Islip — secure rental relief funding. Berger is part of a committee the Suffolk courts convened to strategize about how to handle an anticipated increase in housing instability and eviction cases.

Landlords are "looking anywhere that they can get paid," said Berger, who represents large owners as well as Long Islanders who rent out a portion of their home. "There’s a great deal of frustration, with the fact that COVID has been with us so long, and yet it’s taken all this time for relief programs to come into play."

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