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Hempstead needs to improve and expedite its rent relief program, tenants say

Angelica Lawson protests at a rally Wednesday, calling

Angelica Lawson protests at a rally Wednesday, calling on the Town of Hempstead to speed up distribution of rent relief. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Renters and tenant advocates are protesting the Town of Hempstead's approach to distributing $22.7 million in federal rent relief.

Hempstead should have worked with the state, which would have maximized the amount of money available locally, rather than choosing to administer its own program, the protesters said at a rally this week. They urged the town to do a better job of informing people about the program — for which $22.7 million was allocated in January and another $22.7 million in May — and to more efficiently process applications.

The town had sent $300,000 to landlords on behalf of 23 households as of Aug. 31, according to the most recent data available on the U.S. Department of the Treasury's website. The town said late Friday afternoon that $25.3 million had been committed to applicants or distributed, but did not disclose how much has been distributed.

"The Town of Hempstead continues to fail us," said Will Bailey, a tenant organizer with New York Communities for Change, and one of about 35 people at the rally. "We are demanding action from the Town of Hempstead now."

Hempstead, along with the towns of Islip and Oyster Bay, launched their own assistance programs. Other towns on Long Island instead relied on Albany to distribute their federal rent relief, initially making their residents eligible for extra funds if their local allotment ran out. That benefit is now available to any New Yorker, but the bulk of the state's $2.4 billion has already been distributed or committed.

Hempstead’s approach allowed it to launch its rent relief effort before the state, according to spokesman Greg Blower.

Some at the rally said Hempstead stopped accepting applications on Sept. 28. The Long Island Housing Partnership, which is administering the town's program, previously said it would routinely close and reopen the program so it could regularly rank and prioritize applicants based on their vulnerability. Residents can submit an interest form on the partnership’s website, which will be used to operate the program until all funds are used, Blower said.

Gladys Ruiz, 29, said she didn't find out about the relief program until the rally this week. She said the town needs to do outreach in Spanish.

Ruiz said she and her wife both lost jobs during the pandemic and are now about two months behind on their $1,550 rent.

"I've used my savings to pay for previous months," Ruiz said in Spanish. "I've tried to pay … I'm worried that I will be taken to court or evicted."

The town launched a multi-media campaign notifying people about the program and had an outreach coordinator get in touch with churches, food banks and other organizations, according to Blower.

"All program materials are available in Spanish, local program partners are in place with language capabilities in Spanish, informational videos are available in Spanish, [Long Island Housing Partnership] has retained staff fluent in Spanish to assist applicants, and there has been targeted outreach to Hispanic organizations," Blower said in a statement.

Graciela Arcila, 35 submitted application paperwork in July, but has spent months struggling to finalize the application. She said her landlord filed an eviction case, but has recently helped her seek the assistance. Getting guidance from the town has been difficult, she said.

"They say please don't call too much because they're busy," said Arcila, a home health aide who lives with her daughter and grandchild.

Arcila missed about six months of her $1,130 rent while paying for the funerals of two brothers who died of COVID-19. The bank where her daughter works also closed for a while, Arcila said.

"It was so hard," she said. "But we're still here."

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