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'It's heart-breaking.' Long Islanders struggle to secure assistance with unpaid rent

Kabir Javaid of East Setauket outside one of

New York’s main strategy for helping the rental market recover from COVID-19 — a $2.4 billion relief fund — is nearly out of money.

Yet many tenants and landlords on Long Island still feel stranded.

Renters dealing with job loss, inflation and extra caretaking responsibilities have had to prioritize food and other essentials at their landlords’ expense.

About 27,090 households in Nassau and Suffolk were estimated to be behind on rent in August. -Surgo Ventures analysis

About 13,190 households in Nassau County and 13,900 in Suffolk County were estimated to be behind on rent in August, according to the most recent county-level analysis by Surgo Ventures, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing health and social problems.

The state has received about 5,080 aid applications from Long Island, but fewer than 1,260 have received aid as of this week, according to data from the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which is administering the program. At least 3,770 households sought relief from towns distributing their own rent relief funds — including Islip, Hempstead and Oyster Bay — and about 220 were granted assistance, according to the most recent data provided by towns and the federal government. These programs send payments directly to landlords and management companies.

Tenants now say they’re scouring the Island for other assistance with back rent and utility bills. The number of Long Islanders seeking help from the Economic Opportunity Commission of Nassau County, a nonprofit serving low-income families, remains elevated, according to EOC’s Kimberly Tilghman. During the six-month period ending in August, EOC provided more than 5,900 people with emergency food assistance and 56 households with rental relief, Tilghman said.

'If you're only working two days a week, you might make enough to buy food for your family, but you might not make money to pay the rent.'

Kimberly Tilghman, who has been coordinating relief services

"People are not back to work, or they’re only working part-time," Tilghman said. "If you’re only working two days a week, you might make enough to buy food for your family, but you might not make money to pay the rent."

Under state guidelines, tenants can’t be evicted until Jan. 15, provided they can show that they missed rent because of hardship brought on by COVID-19. Landlords who own no more than 10 residential housing units are similarly shielded from foreclosure and tax lien sales until that date.

Long Islanders who rent out second homes say they’ve drained retirement accounts and borrowed from relatives in an effort to keep up with their mortgages and property taxes. Small landlords say they’re focused on securing relief funds from the state. If they manage to snag enough to cover their arrears, some still fear they’ll lose their properties because of fees and escalating interest rates on commercial mortgages.

Gov. Kathy Hochul noted a few weeks ago that Albany was slated to run through its $2.4 billion in federal rent relief funds by early October. About $1.8 billion has been spent or committed to specific households, according to OTDA.

"The federal funding ... is now close to being fully committed. OTDA, however, will continue taking applications," agency spokesman Anthony Farmer said in a statement this week. Hochul has asked for more federal funds.

The state launched assistance programs targeting those not covered by the federal money: middle-income renters and small landlords whose tenants left them with arrears or otherwise refused to cooperate on aid applications. But these programs have just $125 million each.

Courts are hearing eviction cases again, but judges are authorizing far fewer evictions than normal because the moratoriums put in place during the pandemic protect many tenants. Suffolk County sheriffs started receiving eviction warrants again in early June and had carried out nearly 140 residential and commercial evictions as of Oct. 6, the sheriff’s office said. About 500 evictions were executed during the same period in 2019. In Nassau County, five evictions have occurred during the first nine months of 2021, compared to about 1,080 during all of 2019, the county executive’s office said.

But as relief funding dwindles, some Long Islanders’ anxiety grows.

Grappling with a fixed income

Rockville Centre matriarch Deborah Dean, 67, struggled to stretch her monthly budget of $4,000 when inflation escalated and several relatives sought help while in quarantine.

Dean, who raises six children, said the cost of her groceries ballooned — particularly when the kids were attending school virtually. She fell behind on the $1,400 portion she pays of her $2,270 rent; Section 8 assistance pays the rest. Her utility bill also shot up.

Deborah Dean speaks at EOC of Nassau County

'At this point, numbness is normal.'

-Deborah Dean, 67, who rents in Rockville Centre. 

How much rent she owes: $6,000

Photo credit: Howard Schnapp

The Economic Opportunity Council of Nassau County contributed about $1,450 toward her rent and paid her nearly $470 electric bill last year.

"I was also a recipient of last year’s Thanksgiving dinner by someone who wanted to sponsor a family," Dean said. "[EOC] brought the turkey and everything, and that really touched my heart."

Early this year, four of the kids in Dean’s household contracted the virus. She helped a daughter and granddaughter who had coronavirus by temporarily taking in their children, who also tested positive for the disease. Dean remained healthy, and her relatives didn’t suffer from symptoms of COVID-19. But the caretaking was costly.

"I was running here, there and everywhere trying to make sure everybody had what they needed," Dean said.

Despite estimating her monthly costs have increased by $1,000, Dean is determined not to ration clothing and food for her household or nearby relatives.

"If he comes and he says he needs something, I can’t give it to my grandson because I’m living at a poverty level?" Dean said. "No, I don’t have that mentality."

Dean is now $6,000 behind on rent and owes $800 to her utility company. Her landlord, the Rockville Centre Housing Authority, worked with Dean to seek rental assistance from the Town of Hempstead, and her utility service won’t immediately be cut off.

But the stress weighs on her, and she’s concerned that schools might direct students to attend school virtually again.

"At this point, numbness is normal," Dean said.

When symptoms linger

Every phase of the pandemic seemed to bring a new challenge for Jairo Goris, 35, of Hempstead.

Last spring, Goris lost one of his two food delivery jobs. He and his wife, Anna Plasencia, struggled to find child care, so she stopped working as a home health aide.

This year, Goris stopped getting shifts at his second job.

Jairo Goris speaks at EOC of Nassau County

'It’s hard, and it can get to you.'

-Jairo Goris, 35, who rents in Hempstead.

How much rent he owes: About $3,150

Photo credit: Howard Schnapp

Plasencia’s mother traveled to Hempstead to help out the family. But then in March 2021, everyone in the apartment contracted COVID-19.

When his quarantine ended, Goris worried about relying too much on friends and went out to get supplies, despite feeling fatigued. He drove into the curb. He wasn’t injured and said his insurance covered the damage. But he worries the incident will make it harder for him to secure jobs he’s applied for at FedEx and UPS.

"It was one thing after another," he said in Spanish. "It’s hard, and it can get to you."

Goris has been able to pay for the essentials, such as food, electricity and car bills, but said he couldn’t afford the $1,575 monthly rent. He gets about $600 a week in unemployment; his wife, $400 a week, Goris said.

He grew concerned about losing his apartment in August and went to EOC. The nonprofit covered three months of rent.

Goris said he was grateful for the assistance, adding: "It’s different when you live alone, but now it’s your whole family that you have to think about, and you’re worried about where they’re going to live."

He’s looking for other sources of assistance after missing September and October rent, and hoping his family’s health improves. His wife and son still experience body aches, and Goris said he feels fatigue and dizziness — on top of anxiety and depression.

Striving for solvency

Landlord Kabir Javaid, who rents out 10 houses in Suffolk County, sold a home last year, thinking it would sustain his business, Suffolk Home Rehab LLC, through the crisis.

A year later, Javaid says he’s grappling with at least $138,600 in uncollected rent, tens of thousands of dollars in fees on his mortgages, and refinancing costs as high as $33,000 for one property.

Kabir Javaid of East Setauket outside one of

'Landlords did everything right ... and now we’re getting punished by the banks.'

-Kabir Javaid, of East Setauket, a landlord who rents out 10 Suffolk homes.

How much rent he is owed: at least $138,600

Photo credit: Raychel Brightman

"It’s affecting my mental health," said Javaid, of East Setauket. "On a couple of occasions I thought I was going to have a stroke or heart attack. I’m 34 years old."

Javaid said he’s had issues collecting rent at eight houses, with situations ranging from a household with Section 8 benefits struggling some months to pay its $500 contribution, to a family he said left him with $45,600 in arrears and $15,000 in damage.

Suffolk Home Rehab got a $26,000 low-interest loan through a federal program to assist businesses impacted by COVID-19, according to Javaid. The company also received about $4,700 through a rent relief program the state ran last year. The firm has applications pending with the federally-funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program, but hasn’t received anything, Javaid said.

"Landlords did everything right: We worked with the people that we were supposed to; we tried to evict the people that were scam artists," Javaid said. "Our hands were tied … by the government, and now we’re getting punished by the banks."

To stay afloat, Javaid said he stopped paying property taxes on most of the houses. The home sale gave him $110,000, which he used to pay off some of his company’s bills.

Javaid said he has pulled funds from some of his houses to catch up with bills on others. Still, he has fallen behind on his commercial mortgages, which have terms that authorize late fees, and in some cases, increases in the interest rate. Javaid said he’s defaulted on two mortgages, which has saddled him with an interest rate of 24% and a total of $55,770 in fees on one property.

He fears he will lose these properties after Jan. 15, when the state’s moratorium on evictions and foreclosures expires. Javaid said foreclosures on commercial mortgages move through the court system more quickly than those on residential mortgages. The state has barred landlords from charging late fees. But Javaid’s lender has been reminding him that he will be responsible for such charges — and asking for $33,000 to refinance one loan, he said.

Suffolk Home Rehab typically gets more funding each year when Javaid buys two or three houses and flips one. But that hasn’t been possible in such a tight real estate market, he said.

Instead, he’s weighing selling more homes. Javaid, who experienced homelessness as a child, said this would be a loss for the tenants he caters to, such as the elderly, disabled, single parents and those recently released from prison. His monthly rents range from roughly $310 for a room to $2,750 for a four-bedroom house.

"I made $10 an hour up until 27. I just came from nothing. And I know what I went through to get these houses. And it’s heartbreaking that I’m losing them the way I am," Javaid said. "God forbid something happens to me, that’s it — it’s a wrap for all my tenants."

Where to find help

Applications and info on relief programs:

New York State’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program:

New York State’s Landlord Rental Assistance Program:

Town of Islip program:

Town of Hempstead program:

Town of Oyster Bay program:

Nassau County’s rent relief program:

Guidance and referral services:

Health and Welfare Council of Long Island: 516-559-4453,

Family Service League locations:

Bay Shore: 631-647-3104

Huntington: 631-385-2305

Mastic Beach: 631-874-1327

Riverhead: 631-591-7577

Nassau County Bar Association:

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