Rachel Fee’s op-ed was published today in Lohud. See text below:
New York, like the rest of the country, is facing a housing emergency brought on by the pandemic. Thankfully, Congress has passed, and presidents have signed, two bills that will provide $2.3 billion in rent relief to New York state. Now the state needs to do its part to get the money out the door as quickly as possible.
The need is urgent: In January, New Yorkers owed $2 billion in back rent, and it has worsened since. More than one million New York households are at immediate risk of eviction when the moratorium expires on May 1, and 1.1 million households have “slight or no confidence” that they can pay April’s rent.
Unfortunately, relief is unlikely to be available to renters in April. Albany is still talking about setting up a program to disperse the more than $1 billion in federal rent relief appropriated in December, despite the fact that program terms have already been established by the Treasury Department. While we can and should make changes to ensure that rental assistance maximizes housing stability and prevents evictions, it is critical not to over-legislate. We need to be implementing this program now.
It seems we have not even learned our lesson from the first round of federal rent relief funding. The state so far has only dispersed $47 million of the $100 million allocated because the program was overly restrictive. We can and must do better this time.
First, we must ensure that every household can access the relief they deserve. To get it right this time, the Legislature — which is debating program terms as part of this week’s budget process — must allow tenants to have the ability to self-attest their eligibility for the new program. Requiring certain types of documentation will exclude many households, including the undocumented who have yet to receive any relief at all during the pandemic.
Similarly, it needs to allow tenants to receive assistance directly, especially when landlords are unwilling to participate in the program. This is a widespread problem that could result in countless households across New York not receiving funding, as was the case in the previous program administered by the Department of Housing and Community Renewal. Treasury guidelines allow for tenants to receive funds to pay their landlords directly. This option will be important to prevent evictions.
Finally, the state program should be open to all eligible renters and landlords from the start of the program. Staggered application periods or prioritizing special categories of renters or landlords will only slow down and complicate the process. Prioritizing categories of renters could also backfire and exclude the most vulnerable households.
If the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo take these common-sense steps, they will ensure that eligible households in New York finally access rent relief that will protect them from evictions. Failing to spend this federal funding in a timely manner, will make New York ineligible for additional rent relief that will be redistributed from state’s that don’t utilize it. Also, any federal relief funds left over from the first round of $100 million should be reallocated for this program.
For these reasons, the program also needs to be as transparent as possible. The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which will administer the program, must be required to publicly report on the number of applications it receives; the number of applications it approves; and the relief it awards on a monthly basis. Secrecy, long the norm in Albany, cannot be tolerated this time. Transparency is the only way to ensure funds are quickly and effectively dispersed.
While taking these steps will ensure the funding gets to the people who need it as quickly as possible, New York also needs to continue to take steps to provide protections right now. It will be impossible to disperse relief before May 1, given that the program has not yet launched. While the CDC moratorium was extended to June 1, extending the NY moratorium is the only way to ensure all tenants can access relief before their protections expire.
The reality is that New York has resources right now to protect its most vulnerable residents. It just needs to be smart enough to use them right, or else it will be those same vulnerable residents who pay the price.