New York State could close federal rent relief applications as early as Sunday and isn’t specifying which communities, if any, will be cut off.
With the pool of COVID-era aid nearly drained, the state reached a legal settlement last month with a New York City housing rights groups and tenants who had sued to keep the application open. That agreement could allow Albany to stop accepting applications on Sunday — or later.
The state must notify the plaintiffs’ attorneys at the Legal Aid Society in writing five business days before the shutdown, and as of Tuesday afternoon, the nonprofit legal organization said it hadn’t received any updates from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which is administering the rent relief on behalf of all but three localities on Long Island.
About $92 million has been issued on behalf of nearly 5,150 households on Long Island as of Friday, according to a report from OTDA.
The OTDA didn’t respond to Newsday’s questions about when it plans to close the application portal and in which communities. Over the past year and a half, the online tool has helped the state collect nearly 396,000 applications for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which pays landlords on behalf of lower-income tenants who suffered financially because of the pandemic. The agency, however, argued in court papers that accepting additional requests for aid would divert public resources without helping tenants to settle bills or landlords to collect rent or advance eviction cases.
“OTDA … has therefore once again come to the difficult but rational determination that it should stop accepting applications that it has no reason to believe it could pay out,” state Attorney General Letitia James’ office wrote in court papers filed on behalf of the agency.
On Long Island, the towns of Babylon, Brookhaven and Huntington have exhausted their shares of the aid, according to state and local officials.
Suffolk County believes it has about $4.5 million left for residents of the five eastern towns and Smithtown, and the county “would want the application portal to remain open” for them, said spokeswoman Marykate Guilfoyle.
North Hempstead has about $1.3 million remaining and its town leaders will need to discuss whether they want it distributed through the application tool or directed to other initiatives, spokesman Gordon Tepper said.
Nassau County didn’t respond when asked how much aid it still has available.
Most municipalities decided to minimize administrative costs by having Albany distribute their funding. The towns of Hempstead, Islip and Oyster Bay chose to independently administer the aid.
Hempstead Town has obligated or committed all of its funding, but it is taking backup applications that may be considered if approved applications aren’t fulfilled for various reasons, according to Peter Elkowitz, president and CEO of the Long Island Housing Partnership, which is administering the town’s program.
Islip has some money left but is putting new applications on hold until prior submissions are processed, town spokeswoman Caroline Smith said.
Oyster Bay has assistance available and is accepting applications, town spokeswoman Marta Kane said.
The OTDA announced in November 2021 that its team fielded more requests for aid than it could fund. But the Legal Aid Society’s lawsuit forced the agency to continue accepting applications. Nearly a year later, the state estimated in court papers that the program had a $217 million funding shortfall.
Requesting help from a nearly drained fund can still buy tenants time — but only if the application window remains open. In many lawsuits alleging nonpayment of rent, tenants who submit an application will have their cases frozen while their paperwork is pending, and the state won’t reject renters solely because their region has run out of money, according to Jericho-based attorney Bradley Schnur, who represents tenants and landlords.
“It becomes almost fool’s gold,” said Schnur. “If the program doesn’t pay … it digs the hole deeper for the tenant, and the landlord is still having to sit and wait until there is an outright denial or a full approval.”
Still, some judges have decided not to freeze cases when a rent relief application is pending, according to attorneys. They may allow cases to advance if tenants didn’t file applications in good faith or if they wouldn’t be able to pay off their rent debt even if they’re approved for the maximum amount of aid, Schnur said. The program may cover up to 12 months of missed rent and three forthcoming payments.
The volume of residential and commercial eviction cases filed on Long Island in 2022 remained below pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the Office of Court Administration.
Since the pandemic began, the OTDA has received nearly $2.43 billion in federal rent relief, according to court papers filed in November. The agency states on its website that — as of earlier this month — more than 216,900 households have benefited from $2.72 billion in rent relief, a portion of which the state independently funded.