Since the state eviction moratorium ended on Jan. 15, New York City residents have found it increasingly difficult to access rental aid. The moratorium protected tenants from eviction for pandemic-related rent arrears dating to March 2020. Last year, the Legal Aid Society successfully sued to reopen the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) portal, a federal initiative to pay tenants’ dues to landlords. But by Oct. 7, ERAP had run out of money for New York City tenants. People in desperate need of rental aid say the lack of funding for the program has heightened their confusion, anxiety, and unease as they wait in limbo for what comes next.
“New York should be getting billions of more money from the federal government,” said Ellen Davidson, a Legal Aid Society staff attorney.
ERAP has distributed more than $2 billion of funding to New York state and $1.4 billion to New York City. It has helped more than 100,000 NYC tenants pay off arrears. As a result, the percentage of eviction filings dropped dramatically compared to the pre-pandemic average. But according to the lawsuit filed by Legal Aid Society, there were more than 400,000 tenants in need who had yet to apply.
Further funding depends on the government’s willingness to supply it. Submitting an ERAP application still protects tenants from eviction, but it does not pay their bills. Justin Mason, a spokesperson for the Office of Temporary Disability Assistance, which administers ERAP in New York, said they are trying to secure more money from the federal and state governments to help tenants.
“It is abundantly clear that this program will be unable to provide assistance to all eligible applicants absent a significant infusion of funding,” Mason said.
According to ERAP, about 200,000 tenants are still waiting to hear whether their ERAP applications were successful.
“I applied for ERAP June 7 of last year,” said Talia, a Black single mother and cancer patient from Manhattan who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity. “I’m still pending. No one has gotten back to me. When you call them, they tell you nothing.”
Talia said she also had trouble filling out her ERAP applications. She said she had all her papers in order, but the portal was in disarray.
“The system kept crashing,” she said. “When you think you’re ahead, you’re really not.”
The need for ERAP
The pressures of child care and remote schooling have made it more difficult for low-income parents to catch up on arrears, especially when they need to choose between child care and work—and women have been hit the hardest. ERAP reported that over 60% of New York City applicants have been women, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau there were 1.4 million fewer mothers of school-age children in the workforce in January 2021 compared to the year prior. Black single mothers lost work at a higher rate than any other demographic.
Attorney Jack Newton, who serves the Bronx through Legal Services NYC, said, “96% of the applicants I have worked with are Black and/or Latinx.” Across the city, approximately 46% of ERAP applicants are Black, and 39% are Latinx. Living situations with multiple generations or roommates compounded the risk of contracting the virus. For the roughly 70,000 New Yorkers without health insurance, including those who are undocumented or lost jobs during the pandemic, COVID-19 was simply unaffordable. The rent burden on top of the pandemic stoked a crisis.
Lina Lee, co-founder and executive director of Communities Resist, which brings affirmative litigation against Brooklyn and Queens landlords, emphasized how much harder COVID-19 has been on communities of color. From the outset, rental assistance did not reach those who needed it the most. Lee said the initial roll-out of ERAP was too sudden for advocates to reach out to the most vulnerable: non-English speakers, undocumented immigrants, the elderly, and the disabled. Her organization publicized ERAP on social media, but unless already plugged into the network, it is unlikely that people will keep up with local community organizing online.
Many people also lack the technology to apply independently on the ERAP portal. According to Newton, one out of seven of his clients does not have an email address. Clients need phones, internet, printers, and scanners to fill out the proper paperwork. And a whole infrastructure of support was unreachable with libraries shut for months during the pandemic.
“They claim that you don’t need an email address to apply, but you get second-class access if you don’t have email,” Newton said.
Meanwhile, Lee said landlords have been moving quickly to obtain money judgments against clients after the eviction moratorium expired. Richard LeFrak, the billionaire landlord who has evicted the most tenants in NYC, filed about 1,300 eviction suits in one development in Queens. An interactive map shows the strong overlap between race, income, and eviction filings. The ERAP application requests documentation from both tenants and landlords. Landlords who are already resistant when it comes to co-signing applications may resort to obstructive tactics.
Despite the discouraging state of affairs, advocates emphasize that it is important for people to continue applying for ERAP.
“Demonstrating the demand for it can only increase the amount of money,” Newton said.
More applications mean more pressure on the federal government to revisit funding allocations. The U.S. Treasury has already reallocated unused rental aid to states in greater need, including $119 million to New York. OTDA has said that they will keep pressing for more funding to become available.
“Tenants have a lot of power in this city. You have power. You have rights. You should be organizing,” said New York City Councilmember Shahana Hanif, who represents the 39th Council District in central Brooklyn.
The Met Council on Housing, which supports Talia, and other grassroots groups from the statewide Housing Justice For All coalition recently went to Albany to advocate for housing insecure tenants. Whether the government will provide extra funding is still unclear.