Town of Hempstead residents lose out when rent relief is...

Town of Hempstead residents lose out when rent relief is stuck in a bureaucratic town-federal-nonprofits web. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Hempstead Town officials seem unfazed by the notion that a year after they were allocated $22.72 million in pandemic rent relief funds, $4.72 million was missing from the pot. So much so that only after Newsday made inquiries are they now working on getting the funds from Washington and determining how to use them.

While town officials note that some of the federal allocation is provided on a rolling basis, they don't seem to have a good explanation as to why they didn't pursue the missing funds; details of the grant were publicized in May 2021. Spokesman Greg Blower said the town doesn't make "any funding presumptions" until federal officials confirm the money is theirs. That's like saying a taxpayer expecting an income tax refund from the feds shouldn't make "any funding presumptions" or ask when the check doesn't show up.

Beyond confusion and uncertainty over how the town tracked its money is the issue of how it's been spent. Federal records show that less than half of Hempstead's rent-relief funds have been passed on to landlords. While those involved say that's in part due to fraud prevention, most municipalities have done better. Blower said the town is awaiting "official federal guidance" on how to spend the last tranche of money.

The town chose to handle the program on its own, using the Long Island Housing Partnership as its contractor, rather than allowing the state to manage it. If town officials required help, they should have sought it from Long Island's representatives in Washington who could have made sure they got what they needed.

It's a bad omen. Much larger sums are headed Long Island's way, thanks to the federal infrastructure bill. Public and private entities are still applying, and most of the money hasn't been doled out yet. Ensuring that the funds get into the right hands, and are spent correctly — or as in Hempstead's case, spent at all — will be an enormous undertaking.

The White House should establish clear guidelines and a streamlined process for managing the infrastructure program, along with a public-facing dashboard to show taxpayers who is getting what, what's been spent, and how successful the programs and projects are. Hopefully, that would remove confusion and finger-pointing. Sen. Chuck Schumer should push for such clarity so the public can track what's going on. And there must be clawback procedures, so if a municipality forgoes its funds, or can't spend them properly, the money can go to a jurisdiction that can.

Area residents lose out when rent relief is stuck in a bureaucratic town-federal-nonprofits web, rather than being passed on to them. They'll lose again if the same thing happens with infrastructure money. Everyone wants a piece of that pie, but applicants must make sure they get what is granted — and spend it wisely.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.