People rally to stop evictions – Gregg Vigliotti/for New York Daily News
Getting injured during the height of the COVID-19 crisis was just one of many hardships Fernando Livingston faced when he found himself out of work last year and, even worse, falling behind on rent.

The 68-year-old former security guard has been living on food stamps and workers’ compensation since he got pinned under a gate for nearly an hour while on the job. The resulting spinal injury makes it hard for him to walk.

The prospect of a fund that could cover months of back rent buoyed the Brooklyn man’s hopes and initially assuaged his fears of becoming homeless as he applied for the state-run Emergency Rental Assistance Program in early June.

Nearly seven weeks later, and now behind another month’s rent, Livingston and thousands of others have received no response from the state despite promises that $2.3 billion set aside for rental assistance would soon begin flowing.

“I’ve never been homeless before. I’ve never really had problems with rent before,” he told the Daily News. “I’m scared. I’m not going to tell you no lie. I can’t sleep at night thinking of what’s next, what’s going to happen.”

Livingston, who emigrated to the U.S. from Panama and served in the military for six years, owes his Flatbush landlord more than $10,000.

“If this thing doesn’t work out, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’m just hoping and praying this works out.”

Coreena Popowitch is in a similar situation.

The 45-year-old has been unemployed since the start of the pandemic. She also applied for rental assistance through the state.

“I don’t know what’s going on. I really wish that they let us know,” she said. “It’s frustrating. It’s been pretty much just silence.”

Popowitch says she has paid off some of her Bronx rent but still owes her landlord more than $8,000.

An eviction notice.
An eviction notice. (Jeanne Noonan/for New York Daily News)

The pair are examples of the more than 160,000 New Yorkers who face a frustrating and byzantine application process with the Emergency Rental Assistance Program that has left them with little patience.

The $2.3 billion program was made possible by federal cash set aside in the state budget with the understanding that it would be up and running in time to help struggling New Yorkers before the state’s eviction moratorium expires at the end of August.

The application process didn’t launch until the first week of June, despite promises from Gov. Cuomo and administration officials to get it online earlier.

Making matters worse, the web application portal has been riddled with technical glitches.

Applicants have complained that submissions must be completed in one sitting and can’t be saved and have reported problems uploading documents and other issues.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who played a major role in securing the tenant relief funds as part of stimulus negotiations in Congress, is disappointed that the state hasn’t gotten the ball rolling faster and concerned that the money could be reallocated if it’s not pumped out soon, a spokesman said.

“Sen. Schumer urges New York to do everything in its power to get all the money to tenants immediately because we can lose these hard-fought and desperately needed funds after September,” said the spokesman, Angelo Roefaro.

Compounding the problem, advocates say non-profits enlisted by the state to assist were not given time to train workers on how the online application process worked before it went live. There is also no appeals process for renters who are denied.

The State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, in charge of running the program, says the tech problems have since been ironed out and more than 100,000 applications were submitted during the first 30 days.

Priority is being given to households at or below 50% of area median income, the unemployed and other vulnerable New Yorkers.

Still, tenant advocates, renters and lawmakers are concerned that only a small fraction of the money has been disbursed — less than $120,000 as of last week, according to state data — with little more than a month to go before New York’s eviction freeze comes to an end on Aug. 31.

New York’s snail-like pace looks even worse when compared to other states. Texas has already paid out more than $585 million to more than 93,000 households that fell behind on rent during the pandemic.

State Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan).
State Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan). (Mark Woodward/New York Daily News)

Landlords are also anxious about the slow relief rollout.

Anthony Sarro, a small-scale residential and commercial landlord who owns one building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and another in Forest Hills, Queens, said the eviction ban has caused major headaches after one of his tenants refused to pay rent for almost a year and then vanished.

“He stayed on for 11 months and told me, ‘You can’t evict me,’” Sarro said. “Now he has disappeared and left the apartment completely destroyed. There were cocaine bags all over. I think he lost his job, and now he has disappeared.”

Sarro says he’s out more than $100,000 and had to let some employees go because of the financial stress caused by the deserter and giving a few tenants breaks on rent during the worst of the pandemic.

He was initially hopeful that the rental assistance program could help both him and at least two of his tenants who he knows have applied. But the slow process is just making matters worse in the short term, he said.

“It sort of inspires people not to pay rent,” he said. “What the tenants are doing is that they’re putting themselves in arrears, even though they may be able to pay at least some of their rent because why wouldn’t they? If they can get the city to cover their arrears, why would they try to pay them? It’s hurting me rather than helping me at this point. It’s a little bit egregious.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (Barry Williams/for New York Daily News)

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan) said her office has been inundated with calls about the delays and the unnecessarily complex and crash-prone online portal.

“We’re in the middle of a crisis and there’s no excuse for this money to still be sitting unspent while tenants and landlords are suffering,” Rosenthal said. “The money must go out the door immediately.”

The Assembly will hold a hearing on the program early next month seeking details about the slow rollout as well as information about the $115 million contract awarded to Guidehouse, an Illinois-based company hired to assist in running the program.

Questions have also been raised about the choice of contractor since a senior Cuomo aide left the administration to work for Guidehouse in the spring.

Officials have urged patience during the uproar and a lack of transparency surrounding the process.

Processing times for applications vary and are based on how complete the submissions are, by both tenants and landlords, according to Anthony Farmer, a spokesman for the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

“Test payments were made Monday and we are now ready to safely and efficiently deliver billions of dollars in rental assistance to New Yorkers after opening the program to applications within weeks of enactment in April,” Farmer said.

Denis Slattery covers New York State politics as the Daily News’ Albany bureau chief. He began working at The News in 2012, covering breaking news and national politics.
  • A banner asking Governor Cuomo to cancel rent hangs on a building on Madison St. in Brooklyn – Luiz C Ribeiro/Luiz C Ribeiro