New York May Redistribute 20,000 Unclaimed Rent Relief Checks, Senior Official Says

The Office of Temporary and Disability Administration (OTDA) has sent over 26,000 notices telling homeowners that they will miss the money they are entitled to because they have not claimed the money within 180 days.

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The scene of a June demonstration by Housing Justice for All.

New York may soon redistribute more than $ 250 million in rent relief checks not yet claimed by landlords, state officials said Tuesday.

Barbara Guinn, executive deputy commissioner of the Office of Temporary and Disability Administration (OTDA), said her agency had sent more than 26,000 notices advising property owners that they would lose the money they were entitled to because they had not claimed the money within 180 days. Under New York’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) rules, low-income tenants can apply for financing to cover arrears accumulated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the money going directly to their owners. To receive the money, owners must send their own request.

In some cases, landlords chose not to apply, but in many other cases, the state struggled to match tenant and landlord bids, depending on tenant and landlord groups.

About 20,000 tenant requests submitted between June and August and approved by OTDA have yet to be connected to a landlord, according to agency data. Payments for these requests would cover approximately $ 250 million in arrears.

Either way, Guinn said the state could redistribute unclaimed checks to a backlog of claimants still awaiting payment if landowners don’t claim the money they were approved for.

“The goal is to continue raising awareness during this period to resolve these backlogs,” Guinn told Assembly members at a hearing on homelessness on Tuesday. “As long as that doesn’t happen, those funds are certainly available. “

The agency said it won’t automatically get the approved money back after 180 days and instead will review each request on a case-by-case basis.

“Each request for rent relief is unique and the process of getting the correct landlord and tenant quotes can be time consuming,” said OTDA spokesperson Justin Mason. “OTDA continues its outreach efforts to connect owners with provisionally approved applications. We expect, however, that a majority of these tentatively approved claims will ultimately result in a payment to an owner. “

Governor Kathy Hochul ordered OTDA to shut down the PIU portal last month after the amount of money owed to applicants exceeded the program’s $ 2.4 billion allocation, which came mainly from the federal government. More than 288,000 households applied for ERAP financing before the portal closed, and the state has so far paid homeowners $ 1.13 billion, according to a Dec. 6 ERAP report from OTDA. The agency has approved an additional $ 924 million on behalf of 73,884 tenant households, but has yet to send that money to their landlords.

Hochul called on the federal government to replenish the PIU fund with nearly $ 1 billion to at least cover applicants who received their bids before she closed the portal. Guinn said on Tuesday that the unclaimed money will go to applicants stranded on what amounts to a waiting list for unpaid landlords.

“We have a number of requests internally which cannot be met by the funds available,” she said.

Guinn also told lawmakers the state could reopen the portal “in a few days” depending on how much money it receives from the federal government. This engagement may meet with skepticism from New Yorkers who remember the slow start of the program as well as the lingering failures of the politically connected company tasked with rising up and operating the web portal.

Tenant advocates and state lawmakers have urged Hochul and OTDA to reopen the portal immediately, even without federal injection, in part because an PIU application serves as a defense against eviction in the housing court.

The Legal Aid Society sued OTDA in Manhattan Supreme Court on Monday to force the agency to resume accepting PIU claims.

The class action lawsuit won the support of Assembly member Linda Rosenthal, chair of the social services committee, which held the hearing on Tuesday.

“The state’s shutdown of the program, especially in light of the fact that it has requested and is likely to receive billions in additional PIU funds from the federal government, is puzzling as it unfairly denies this protection to tenants,” Rosenthal said in a statement.

Housing legal aid attorney Ellen Davidson said she was concerned that tenants who were prevented from applying for ERAPs might end up being evicted before the program reopens at a later date. State eviction protections expire on January 15.

“I think we’re going to see people who are eligible for the program get kicked out and then the program will reopen,” Davidson said. “And the people who would have been entitled to the payment of the rent arrears will be homeless. “

A spokesperson for OTDA said the agency was not commenting on the pending litigation.

The vast majority of prospective tenants in New York are among the most vulnerable to homelessness, according to OTDA reports.

In the five boroughs, 90 percent of PIU applicants earn less than 50 percent of the region’s median income (AMI), or no more than $ 53,700 for a family of three. About 71 percent of all PIU applicants reported earning less than 30 percent of the IAM, or $ 32,200 for a family of three.

Yet countless eligible tenants did not apply before the portal closed, BronxWorks deputy executive director Scott Auwarter told City Limits last month.

“I am very concerned that some of the most needy tenants have yet to apply and will not do so until the moratorium on evictions is lifted,” said Auwarter, whose organization has received a $ 5 million municipal contract to help Bronx tenants apply for rent relief.

Homeowner groups have also called on the state to reopen the application portal to ensure their members can recover money lost during the pandemic and to get a clearer picture of how many tenants owe rent across the board. the state.

“This is the only way the government knows the extent of the need, and then we can have a more in-depth conversation about permanent solutions,” said Jay Martin, chair of the rent-stabilized landlord group Community Housing and Improvement. Program.

Martin said few of its members have chosen to forgo the money at their disposal. Instead, he said, ERAP failed to match many prospective tenants with their landlords, leaving them unable to collect the money. These owners could run out of funds they may never be able to replace, he said.

“There might be a handful of landlords who aren’t trying to get that money, but there are tons of tenants and tons of landlords trying to get it,” he said.

Under the ERAP rules, landlords who accept payment from the state must renew their tenant’s lease for at least one year, a provision that has made some landlords think twice about the program. But a backlog in housing courts and the pace of proceedings mean tenants can likely stay in place another year with or without the ERAP money, making rejecting the money a bad business strategy, Martin added. .

“If you get a deportation you don’t get that money,” he said.

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