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Hochul announces changes to accelerate state rent relief program, attract more applicants

Wed, Aug 25th 2021 01:25 pm

Orders state to invest additional $1 million in marketing and outreach efforts to boost applications in underserved areas; all tenants who apply are protected from eviction while application is under review

√ Directs rapid review of workflow and redeployment of vendor staff specifically for landlord outreach and resolving incomplete applications to increase payments

√ New county-by-county data on rent relief payments will be posted publicly later this week to increase transparency

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday announced a series of changes to both attract more applications and accelerate payments within New York state's Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Under the governor's direction, the state will invest an additional $1 million in marketing and outreach efforts to raise awareness about the rent relief program, the available funding, and the strong tenant eviction protections in place for those who apply. The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which administers the program, will analyze application data to target areas of the state with relatively low numbers of applications.

Hochul is also ordering a rapid review of the rent relief program's workflow, as well as the reassignment of 100 contracted staff to work solely with landlords to complete pending applications, which will accelerate payments. They will conduct direct outreach, work with landlords one-on-one, clarify and obtain missing information, and resolve outstanding issues so that more rent relief funding can be disbursed. Additionally, new data breaking down rent relief payments by county will be posted on OTDA's website later this week to increase transparency. The website currently shows where applications are originating and basic demographics.

"The pandemic thrust countless New Yorkers into financial turmoil and uncertainty, leaving many struggling to pay their rent," Hochul said. "By expanding and better targeting our marketing and outreach efforts, we can raise awareness in the communities that need our help the most, encourage more people to apply, and protect them from being evicted. We are also reviewing and recalibrating the workflow and will dedicate more staff specifically to helping landlords through their application, so we can get outstanding applications fully approved and money out the door much more efficiently."

Hochul’s team stated, “To date, more than 46,000 tenants have had their applications provisionally approved and rent relief funding set aside for them, but in some cases, small discrepancies in information between the tenant and landlord applications or the need to reconcile landlord accounts are delaying payments from being sent out. These reassigned vendor staff will work proactively to rectify these issues so direct payments already set aside can be disbursed.”

Up to $2.7 billion in emergency rental assistance is available for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The program helps with up to 12 months of past-due rent, three months of prospective rental assistance, and 12 months of utility arrears payments to eligible New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status.

Since the program began accepting applications on June 1, OTDA has either distributed or obligated more than $680 million in federal funding, including more than $200 million in direct payments to landlords. New York now ranks second nationally for the most funding approved or paid to households, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition reporting, which tracks the state-by-state implementation of the program.

Hochul’s team said, “New York's rent relief program provides some of the strongest tenant protections in the nation, which will be vital to tens of thousands of New Yorkers as the end of the state eviction moratorium approaches on Aug. 31. Applicants to the program automatically receive protections from eviction while their application is pending.”

To receive assistance, a landlord must agree to waive any late fees due on past-due rent; and not increase the tenant's monthly rent or evict them for one year, except in limited circumstances.

Under federal law, both tenants and landlords must complete the application before payments can be made. New York state, however, allows for the tenant side of the application to be approved so that the renter is fully covered by the eviction protections offered by the program. In these cases, the state holds the obligated funds for six months as efforts are made to identify and pay the landlord. Tenants in this circumstance will receive a clear notification that they can use as an affirmative defense to avoid eviction for up to one year.

"We are focused on helping New Yorkers in need and are grateful for Gov. Hochul's leadership and support on this vital issue," OTDA Commissioner Mike Hein said. "While we continue to take steps to ease and expedite the application process, we are also encouraging all eligible New Yorkers to apply for this critical assistance so that they are shielded by the strong eviction protections afforded to all applicants."

Earlier this month, OTDA added the “save and resume” function for applications in the portal, which allows applicants to pause when necessary and come back to the process. The agency also added an enhanced status feature, which gives applicants a clearer picture of where their application is within the process. In addition, the agency has streamlined the application process by reducing the amount of documentation needed to apply.

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