Neighborhood Defender Service Legal Advocate William Botchway testifed before the New York State Assembly about the shortcomings of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). The program, designed to support tenants hurt by the pandemic, faces myriad problems: a confusing application process, unnecessary means testing, bureaucratic delays and more. The state allocated $2.7 billion to rental assistance, but only a tiny fraction of that money has been distributed.
NDS has helped dozens of clients apply for the program, and testified today based on that experience, and the concerns of our clients and neighbors.
Read William’s testimony below:
I am William Botchway, Legal Advocate on the Housing Defense Team in the Civil Defense Practice at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem (NDS). NDS is a community-based public defender office that provides high-quality legal services to residents of Northern Manhattan. Since 1990, NDS has been working to improve the quality and depth of criminal and civil defense representation for those unable to afford an attorney through holistic, cross-practice representation. With the early implementation of Right to Counsel in key Northern Manhattan zip codes, NDS joined the Right to Counsel Coalition and began serving community through the Right to Counsel Program. As a holistic public defender office, NDS is particularly familiar with the collateral consequences of homelessness, including an increased chance of entering the criminal legal system.
Problems with the Emergency Rental Assistance Program
For 17 months we have tried to get ahead of the coming wave of evictions by empowering tenants to access emergency rental assistance. First we had HRA One-shot deals, but the process has always been too onerous to reach those most in need. In the summer of 2020, we had tenants apply for the COVID Rent Relief Program administered by Homes and Community Renewal, but the requirements were so strict that only a small percentage of the money was ever distributed. Our hope when we first heard about ERAP was that the process would be simpler and transparent; that the application would finally be designed to help get relief to those in need. Sadly, this has been far from the case. The program’s good intentions have been entirely consumed by technical glitches and logistical nightmares.
The application process is confusing, and the instructions remain unhelpful. The application is separated into many sections, and when a client logs into their account to create an application, it is not made clear that the application has to be completed in one sitting. An applicant returning to a partially completed application will be disappointed to learn that their application is gone. That would not be such a problem if an applicant was able to view the entire application at once. Instead, each new section of the application only reveals itself when the previous one is completed. The document checklist on the homepage is incomplete, as only after navigating the application does an applicant learn that they need their 1040 from 2020, a rent ledger, and help from the landlord who is actively seeking their eviction.
We at NDS have helped dozens of our clients successfully apply for this assistance since June 1st, but August 2nd was the first time that any NDS client received an approval on their application. And as of August 6th, no payment has been made for that approved application. With less than a month before the eviction moratorium expires, we find this delay unacceptable. While a pending ERAP application will temporarily stay a court case, what happens to those tenants whose applications are denied after August 31? This leaves them without any eviction protections while they are forced to apply for arrears assistance through other means. HRA is denying all One-Shot Deals and some nonprofit organizations have suspended their arrears assistance programs due to the availability of ERAP. For most tenants, ERAP is currently their only option for receiving rental arrears assistance.
Without changes, the unnecessary means-testing and bureaucratic delay in the administration of ERAP will lead to unnecessary, violent, and tragic evictions, because other avenues of receiving assistance have been cut off.
Problems with the System
The antiquated technology behind the processing of ERAP applications levy a heavy logistical burden on tenants applying for the program. A client reached out to our office to say that despite having submitted all their documentation weeks earlier, they received a notice from the Office of Temporary Disability Assistance (OTDA) saying that the documents were not submitted.
By calling the OTDA, my office discovered a glitch where documents uploaded using any browser other than Google Chrome could result in those documents not registering properly in the system and disappearing from OTDA’s records. This issue was only discovered after our client received a letter from OTDA stating they had no record of the documents she submitted two weeks prior. Using her application number I was able to show that the documents uploaded and each had their own separate confirmation number, but we were forced to reupload the documents anyway.
Another NDS client called to inform me that when they had called the ERAP hotline to get an update on their application, they were told that OTDA had no record their application. Not just their documents, but their whole application. However, in the tenant section of the ERAP page each part of the application was listed as “pending[.]” I called OTDA myself, and was told that while the application appears online, it is not in their system! They agreed to try to locate the application, but clarified this is not the first time a submitted application had been lost. I was offered the solution of having my client submit a new application, which we find to be unsatisfactory.
ERAP has continued in the tradition of dangling rent relief just out of the reach of those who need it most. It is clear that the system being used by OTDA to collect and process ERAP applications does not facilitate the dispersal of emergency relief funds, and it falls on our clients to bridge the gap caused by their technological failures. This is a particularly damaging circumstance for tenants who are not very comfortable with technology in the first place, as it adds an extra layer of confusion to their application process. Whether it is public assistance, healthcare, or emergency rental assistance, history shows that if you make the application process daunting enough, you can ensure that it will never reach those most in need.
Inability to Make Exceptions
The ERAP application process has shown an inability to make exceptions or accommodate for the real circumstances faced by low-income renters.
One Shot Deals are being universally denied while ERAP is available. This policy has an added adverse effect on those who are not eligible for ERAP, such as those who live in low-income cooperatives. OTDA refuses to provide a letter stating that a client is ineligible and if they do not apply, they will not receive a denial letter. So, the client is forced to go through the fool’s errand of submitting an application with the knowledge that it will be denied, for the sole purpose of eventually producing a denial letter to show HRA in order to apply for a One-Shot Deal. This is a gratuitous waste of precious time for NDS as a legal service provider, the staff at OTDA who has to review this application, and puts vulnerable tenants at risk of eviction.
ERAP was announced long before the application went live, and we had hoped that in the meantime, OTDA would find a way to implement policies and procedures which would facilitate approvals for those in need. With all of the stakeholders in agreement that these monies need to be quickly disbursed, it boggles the mind as to who is served by all of the barriers standing in the way.
Much like its predecessors, we have found ERAP to place too many barriers in front tenants who desperately need assistance to avoid eviction.