MASSENA — The Emergency Rental Assistance Program for landlords and tenants isn’t rolling out very smoothly for St. Lawrence County.
The applications are being filed, but the payments are slow in coming in, according to Courtnie Toms, deputy director of Maximizing Independent Living Choices in Massena.
Ms. Toms was unable to attend Thursday’s meeting of the St. Lawrence County Fair Housing Task Force. But, in a written report, she said her office, as well as the St. Lawrence County Department of Social Services, has filed 414 applications completed by both the landlord and the tenant. They have, however, only received three payments from the Office of Temporary Disability Assistance, which is in charge of sending out payments.
She said Maximizing Independent Living Choices has assisted approximately 215 tenant and 20 landlord applications. Of the total applications, Ms. Toms said the majority are from the Ogdensburg and Massena areas.
“This is to be expected, as those locations are high in rental units,” she said.
They’re followed by Gouverneur, Canton and Potsdam.
The Emergency Rental Assistance Program assists households who are behind on their rent and are at risk of homelessness or housing instability. The assistance can pay up to 12 months of past due rent and for some households, pay up to three months’ future rent.
New York residents are eligible for the program if:
— Their household gross income is at or below 80% of the area median income, which varies by county and household size.
— On or after March 13, 2020, a member of the household received unemployment benefits or experienced a reduction in income, incurred significant costs or experienced financial hardship, directly or indirectly, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
— The applicant owes past due rent at their current residence.
Tenants, landlords and property owners who submit an ERAP application will be protected from eviction for one year from the date the application is submitted to the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.
P.J. Herne, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, said there have been numerous technical issues, “especially in regards to eligibility requirements because I don’t think the state was prepared enough to have staff available to make those eligibility determinations.”
“This has really made the program come to a trickle with respect to getting determinations made and getting checks out the door,” he said.
He said that filters down to his office and the work they do “because not only are tenants frustrated, but as you can imagine, landlords are extremely frustrated at this point and it’s not making life easier for everybody, especially now with the eviction moratorium extended and added issues like that.”
“Three payments to date is disappointing,” Ms. Toms said. “It goes without saying there is a lot of discussion about the lack of ability of OTDA to push out the payments to landlords as quickly as we all had hoped.”
She said there have been technical difficulties with an application that she said is not user-friendly.
“An average application takes one hour to complete,” she said. “Documents have to be uploaded separately. There is a maximum file size that causes some documents to have to be split into multiple pages. The application cannot be edited once submitted. So if someone makes a mistake, the application has to be completed all over again. If the system goes down during the application, the entire application will have to be redone.”
She said that during the initial startup of the application, certain features were not online, After two weeks, the state updated the site to require other adults in the household to certify the application outside of the original application, at a different link on the website.
“Many updates like this were made and agencies were not informed, nor were the instructions updated,” Ms. Toms said. “There have also been multiple weeks where the landlord registration and certification portion would not work. Lastly, document requirements have changed throughout the process, and increased. They began asking for deeds to properties after about a month of applications already being filed. This has been a large barrier — many tenants/landlords didn’t have the documents needed. MILC created various attestation documents to help with this process.”