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  • Writer's pictureMalak AlSayyad

Millions in rent relief remain undisbursed, New York organizers renew call for rent cancellation

Updated: Mar 8

NEWS STORY - NYC, NY - October 9, 2021

“Cancel the rent” rally, September 25th, 2021. M. AlSayyad

New York’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) has yet to disburse millions of dollars of the state’s $2.7 billion program. In response, organizers and candidates for office on the New York city and state level have renewed their call to cancel the rents, citing concerns for tenant’s safety during the ongoing pandemic, lack of affordable housing and both inefficiency and inaccessibility of the state’s emergency relief program.

According to the NY Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), $1.8 billion in assistance has been “obligated and/or paid.” But as of October 12, only $839.6 million — less than 50 percent —has been issued to landlords, according to the same summary on its website. The goal of ERAP, OTDA says, is to “provide significant economic relief to help low and moderate-income households at risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability by providing rental arrears, temporary rental assistance and utility arrears assistance.”

NY's current eviction moratorium, signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul last month, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the previous state moratorium as well as the federal eviction moratorium this summer, pauses evictions for tenants who prove COVID-related hardships. It is set to expire in January 2022.

“Housing [insecurity] is a health crisis.” says Ali Diini, a political organizer running for State Senate for District 30. “It’s still a pandemic. And it's not okay to put people out on the streets.”

Kristin Richardson Jordan, a City Council candidate in District 9 Central Harlem whose campaign was funded through small donations, in cooperation with Ali Diini and members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and campaigners for Cathy Rojas for NY Mayor organized a rally to cancel the rent in September. The New York rally was held in conjunction with nationwide “cancel the rent” events the same weekend.

Ali Diini at “Cancel the rent” rally, September 25th, 2021. M. AlSayyad

Only fundamental change will bring relief to long-suffering renters, Diini says. To her, "cancel the rent" means universal rent relief that includes forgiveness of all back rent and utility payments for people facing pandemic-related hardship . She also says the requirement that tenants apply for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) should be eliminated because that process depends on landlord cooperation, which is often not given. Moreover, ERAP has a major backlog.

“The thing that’s most difficult [in the application] is the rent ledger”, explains Ryan McNamara, a student-attorney at P.A.’L.A.N.T.E. Harlem, a nonprofit advocacy group, who helps tenants applying for ERAP. Applications to ERAP must include a rent ledger that details the amount of rent owed and paid by the tenant by month. This document is then uploaded by a landlord onto the application platform. In McNamara’s experience, some landlords provided erroneous ledgers and some refused. “Certain tenants have called us saying my landlord won't give us a rent ledger,” says McNamara. “I personally have no way of compelling them to do it. So [landlords] can forego this free government money in the hopes of being able to evict the tenant, if they want to.” Since McNamara has started filing applications for tenants in June and July only a few have heard back from OTDA. .

Of the 242,007 ERAP applications, only 76,382 had been deemed "provisionally approved" and "pending landlord verification" as of October 12, 2021, according to OTDA. This means that more than 31 percent of tenants have had no final determination on their applications.

“I see cancel rent as a forgiveness of debt that has been incurred due to the pandemic.” says Richardson Jordan, whose team has been helping tenants fill out ERAP applications. “Basically a way out for people who have been struggling, who are never going to make enough money to come back from the level of debt that they're currently in.” She identifies several barriers to accessing the program ERAP applicants in her community face, including lack of awareness of the program, a counterintuitive, multistep process that requires access to technology, and language barriers while trying to provide support to applicants. Jordan has also seen situations where landlords have refused to cooperate with tenants on their applications and worries about the increase in evictions driving gentrification further in her district.

“It's a matter of there being an economic burden due to the pandemic. And where do we want that burden to fall? Do we want it to fall on people who are scraping by who are paying month to month?” asks Jordan. “Or do we want it to fall on some of the wealthiest individuals in our nation who own property, who, frankly, can make it and make it just fine without that rent?”

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