Sophie Adams began applying for the state’s new emergency rent relief program for her mother, an out-of-work shopkeeper who lives in the East Village, as soon as applications opened last Thursday at 9 a.m.
But every time she tried to submit her mother’s information she got the same error message: “Whoa, hold it! You are not authorized to access this page.” Adams, a 31-year-old software developer, spent most of the day reading through thousands of lines of the website’s source code. She identified a coding flaw that prevented the state’s website from storing her mother’s information, then workshopped several different methods of applying, to no avail.
A call to the state help line went dead. (After a Gothamist/WNYC reporter pointed out the hotline wasn’t working, it was promptly fixed.) When Adams finally talked to a representative and walked him through the error message, he told her to wait until they’d worked out the technical issues.
“It’s literally people’s lives. You shouldn't be allowed to just get away with telling people to wait,” Adams said, adding she’d also helped her mother navigate the Kafkaesque mess of trying to qualify for unemployment after the COVID-19 pandemic forced all non-essential businesses to halt operations and her mother lost her job at Fishs Eddy, a homegoods store in the Flatiron District.
After three days of further attempts, Adams gave up, found a printer and filled out a paper application.
“It’s just an endless pit of despair,” she said.
Tens of thousands, if not millions, of New Yorkers are facing a rapidly approaching financial cliff at the end of July, when $600 weekly federal unemployment checks run out and landlords can once again begin taking tenants to court for unpaid rent when outstanding halt on evictions and related proceedings put in place by the Office of Court Administration end on August 5th.
The recently-created state program aims to distribute $100 million in federal relief funds towards rent, and offered a glimmer of hope for some tenants who met all of the restrictions to apply for it. (Tenants must earn less than 80 percent of the area median income—which in New York City is $90,960 for a family of four—and pay more than 30 percent of their income towards rent before the pandemic and have lost income during the course of it.)
But tenant advocates say the bureaucratic hurdles and language barriers make it all but inaccessible to the people in most dire need of relief.
“I haven’t met anyone who successfully applied,” said Cea Weaver with Housing Justice for All, who tried to walk one of their members through the online application process on Monday before the website crashed. Her client also gave up and decided to submit a paper application.
“It just is like a huge barrier to entry for the people who need the support the most,” Weaver said.
As of Tuesday, more than 30,000 people had successfully submitted applications for the rental assistance program, and while there were technical glitches during the initial rollout last Thursday, they had been resolved soon after, according to the State’s Department of Homes and Community Renewal (HCR).
Tenant advocates, however, said they continued to encounter technical issues through Tuesday, at which point they finally began receiving reports that people had been able to apply online, five days after applications opened and nine days before the two-week application period closes on July 30th.
Charni Sochet, a spokesperson for HCR, pointed to applications on the website available in six languages, though people are instructed to use the translations as a guide and fill out reponses in English. The online application is only in English, though the translated versions instruct the person to call the helpline to speak to a translator to assist the online application.
“What we have done here... is removed the anxiety and the pressure all together of rent,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo, speaking on NY1 on Wednesday, alluding to the Tenant Safe Harbor Act. Enacted in June, the law shields tenants from physical evictions if they can prove financial hardship during the pandemic, but still allows landlords to sue tenants for non-payment in court.
“We have said that no one can be evicted during the COVID crisis because they can’t pay the rent. Period,” Cuomo said.
But housing groups continue to push for more dramatic measures to protect tenants, like cancelling rent or extending the eviction moratorium, which would protect tenants from protracted court battles for unpaid rent.
One renter struggling to apply for the relief fund said she felt as anxious as ever.
“I’m going to keep applying online, until the last day, because I don’t have money to go print it,” said Yoselyn Gomez, 54, in Spanish, who’d tried using the online portal a dozen times since Thursday. Gomez is a tenant organizer in her Bronx housing apartment complex. She lost her job at Lowes in 2019 and had promising offers with the U.S. Census Bureau and Home Depot earlier this year when the pandemic hit.
Now she’s five months behind on her rent, but technically may not qualify for the rent subsidy, because she has to prove she lost income since March.
“We’re desperate,” she said, adding that she and many of the tenants in her building had also been trying repeatedly to apply for the program to no avail. “No one could qualify...We don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Even for those who successfully submit applications, the rental subsidy is not guaranteed. There’s a limited $100 million pot of funds that will be distributed by the state based on financial need and risk of homelessness among other factors, a state spokesperson said.
Flatbush resident Priscilla Grim, 46, considered herself lucky when her application went through last Thursday, the day the program opened. The out-of-work digital strategist and single mother of a 17-year-old said she’s hoping for the best, but still dreading next month.
“I can pay rent, August 1, but after that I literally have no idea what to do,” Grim said. Because of outstanding student loans she’d begun investing what savings she did have in gold and jewelry to keep debt collectors from garnishing her earnings, she said.
“I literally don’t know what I'm gonna do if I don’t get a job,” she said, adding she’d been applying for everything she could find. “I’m probably going to be selling gold at the end of the month.”