New Yorkers battered by the economic fallout of COVID-19 can apply for a slice of long-awaited state relief — those who qualify can, anyway.
A three-week application period has opened for New York state’s COVID Rent Relief Program, offering rent-burdened households a one-time subsidy paid directly to landlords. The program, which was legislated in May, arrives on the heels of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s quiet rollback of COVID-19-related residential eviction protections this month, and alongside new guidance from the state Office of Court Administration extending a pause on most eviction proceedings in housing court until early August.
The application window was originally set to close on July 30, but after technical and linguistic barriers emerged for some applicants, the state extended the period by an additional week through August 6.
But the income-restricted assistance is still only a minuscule piece of the rent relief jigsaw needed to help New Yorkers get back on their feet. Many whose incomes took a hit during the state-mandated shutdown are now grappling with the harsh reality of owing months of back rent. The state’s voucher program won’t outright cover rents but, for those who qualify, it may offer some support.
To be eligible for the subsidy, which can be applied to rent for the months of April through July, a tenant must have earned below 80 percent of the area median income in their area prior to the outbreak of the pandemic — that’s about $82,000 for a family of three in New York City.
Applicants must also have already been paying more than 30 percent of their household income toward rent as of March, and then have suffered a loss of income during the state’s stay-at-home order that increased their rent payments to an even greater share of their income.
If a tenant meets these qualifications, the state would then pay the difference between the 30 percent of a tenant’s income and the rent due. That subsidy is capped at 125 percent of the fair market rent for each month of assistance that is requested. In the case of the five boroughs, that would mean up to a maximum of about $2,439 for a two-bedroom apartment.
Households that meet this convoluted criteria, and that have already managed to pay all or part of their rent between April and July, are eligible to receive assistance. Under these circumstances, renters also have the option to use the aid as pre-payment for future rent, beginning in the month of August. Alternatively, they could permit their landlord to apply the subsidy to a security deposit, if it was used to pay rent.
Households must have at least one U.S. citizen to apply, and individuals who are undocumented are not permitted to seek aid directly. Renters who receive a Section 8 housing voucher are not eligible for relief either — but, if their household is rent burdened, they can reach out to their voucher administrator to request an increase in the aid they already receive.
Three core documents are needed to apply: a government-issued ID, a lease or another contractual obligation that indicates the rent amount, and proof of a household’s gross income both prior to March and at present (that could be pay stubs, letters from an employer, or federal or state tax returns). Renters can file applications through the state’s Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) website through August 6.
Funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the $100 million effort represents only a sliver of the tens of billions of dollars allocated to New York state by the federal government. It’s difficult to estimate how many New Yorkers will benefit from the aid, but if tenants receive, say, an average of $1,000 a month for the four months, some 25,000 households could be helped.
That said, New York City is home to 5.4 million renters in more than 2 million apartments. Roughly 25 percent of the city’s renters have not paid rent since March, according to the landlord trade group the Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP).
Tenant advocates like Cea Weaver, a campaign coordinator with the statewide Housing Justice for All coalition, have decried the measure as “woefully inadequate.” Manhattan State Senator Brian Kavanagh, who chairs the Senate housing committee and sponsored the bill, has acknowledged that the income-restrictive effort “doesn’t meet the need” of non-qualifying renters who have lost substantial income and still owe their landlords.
Legislation included in a state package of new COVID-19 relief bills hopes to change that. The Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act of 2020, introduced by Manhattan Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar, seeks to outright cancel residential rent payments accrued between March 7 and the end of New York’s ongoing state of emergency (plus an additional 90 days).
That legislation, unlike other proposals, would not stipulate financial hardship qualifications for the cancellation of rent. That bill would also establish a “landlord relief fund” overseen and distributed by HCR, but property owners would only receive that aid if they agree to a five-year freeze on rent increases for tenants along with a pledge not to evict renters without good cause, such as a lease violation.
A separate bill seeks to craft another rental voucher program — sponsored by Kavanaugh and Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz — under the purview of HCR, only this time it would be geared toward homeless New Yorkers or those faced with an imminent loss of housing.