Public housing tenants demand funding after exclusion from NY’s $3 billion rent relief program

Gothamist, David Brand, March 25, 2023 

Public housing tenants excluded from the state’s $3 billion rent relief program are urging lawmakers to allot a new pot of money to cover arrears in the upcoming state budget — or risk a wave of evictions among some of New York’s lowest-income residents.

Residents of NYCHA apartments owe $466 million in back rent, but have been explicitly locked out of the state’s depleted Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or ERAP – a mix of federal and state funds used to reimburse landlords whose tenants missed payments as a result of the pandemic. Tenant leaders and NYCHA officials say the exclusion puts residents at risk of eviction for nonpayment, and further strains the cash-strapped housing agency’s budget.

“The people have been failed across the board,” said Jackson Houses Tenant Association President Danny Barber, who is also the head of the Citywide Council of Presidents. “It’s horrible if the federal government allocates money to the states but [New York] blocks people in public housing from receiving assistance.”

They plan to rally for relief funding in the upcoming state budget outside the Johnson Houses in East Harlem at noon on Sunday.

The public housing authority says 31,000 households applied for assistance worth around $121 million in just the first year after the ERAP portal opened in 2021. NYCHA estimates those tenants now owe roughly double that amount, with another $200 million missing from residents who did not apply for help from a program that locked them out.

At a budget hearing last December, NYCHA officials said the yawning rent gap has forced the agency to draw from its reserves and limited its ability to chip away at more than $40 billion in needed repairs.

No other state excluded public housing authorities from its rent relief program like New York did. NYCHA’s Interim CEO Lisa Bova-Hiatt said rental assistance was a “matter of equity” as well as a needed source of funding to cover repairs and improvements across roughly 178,000 apartments citywide.

“We remain hopeful that our tenants will be treated like their friends and neighbors who were afforded this COVID-related relief,” Bova-Hiatt said in a statement on Saturday.

The Assembly and state Senate each included NYCHA rent relief in their one-house spending plans ahead of negotiations with Gov. Kathy Hochul before an April 1 budget deadline.

Hochul did not include that money in her budget proposal and has yet to signal whether she also backs the rent relief program. Hochul’s spokesperson Justin Henry said she will work with the legislature “on a final budget that meets the needs of all New Yorkers.” 

Under her predecessor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state determined that ERAP funds would only go to public housing authorities if there was money left over after reimbursing landlords of privately owned buildings. The tapped-out fund has so far issued just over $3 billion, with tens of thousands of landlords still waiting for cash. None of the money will go to public housing, according to a message now posted on the state’s ERAP website.

On Friday, a number of advocacy groups sent Hochul, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie a letter urging them to issue $538 million for NYCHA rent arrears and another $51 million for public housing authorities outside the five boroughs.

“If the state doesn’t act, evictions are a serious concern,” wrote the groups, which included Legal Aid, Community Voices Heard and Enterprise Community Partners.

They warn that continuing to lock public housing authorities out of relief could have far-reaching consequences. The average household income for NYCHA residents was around $24,500 last year, and evicted tenants cannot qualify for other public housing or federal rent subsidies, like Section 8, until they pay off their debt.

“Why does the state have a right to say to these folks, ‘Get in the back of the line?’ when they have a desperate need,” said Norrinda Brown Hayat, a Fordham University law professor. “There’s no good reason why this group of people has to be held back and come in second.”

This story was updated to include comment from Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office.

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