Rental relief takes on new urgency

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With New York’s eviction moratorium set to expire tomorrow, the reopening of a rental relief program could protect those in danger of being removed from their homes.

The Emergency Rental Assistance Program was established in 2021 as a way to help tenants who could not pay their rent due to financial hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from financial assistance, the program also halted eviction proceedings until a decision was reached on the pending relief application.

Although the $2.4 billion in federal funds for New York’s ERAP was used up or committed by November, the eviction protection remained, which was a motivating factor for reopening the portal, supporters say.

“We urge all New Yorkers in need of rent relief to immediately apply for funds through the (New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance) web portal, as a pending application will provide temporary protection from eviction, regardless of whether the state receives additional (federal) funding,” says Ed Josephson, supervising attorney in the civil law reform unit at the Legal Aid Society.

The Legal Aid Society, a direct legal aid group, brought the class action litigation that forced the web portal to reopen. The group argued that more than 400,000 families in New York still remain behind on their rent but did not apply for ERAP aid before the portal closed, limiting their protections. The portal reopened on Jan. 11. It says New York will be eligible to apply for additional funding this spring from an $18 billion national pool of unspent ERAP funds.

The danger of eviction is set to increase as the state moratorium ends. The moratorium prevented eviction proceedings as long as tenants were not creating health hazards and could prove they experienced financial hardship caused by the COVID pandemic.

It began in 2020 under then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo during one of the worst stretches of the pandemic. The moratorium was extended multiple times including by current Gov. Kathy Hochul in August. However, Hochul has indicated that was the final extension, stating recently that “(it) is concluding very shortly.”

From 2019 to 2021, data from the New York State Unified Court System shows that Monroe County eviction case filings accounted for 3 percent of the total number of cases statewide. Pre-pandemic, the yearly number of filings was just over 8,000. That equaled 1.19 percent of the county’s total population, giving Monroe the ninth highest rate of filings among all counties in New York.

City-Wide Tenant Union of Rochester has been advocating housing reform since 2018. The group’s most recent protest took place on the steps of the Albany capital building on Wednesday.

CWTU’s most recent social media push, “Good Cause Now,” is in support of state legislation that would require property owners to prove good cause to evict tenants. In most cases, it would also give tenants the right to a lease renewal and prevent landlords from removing a tenant without an order from a judge. The legislation is currently in committee in the state Senate. 

Without that legislation, CWTU’s “Good Cause Now” campaign contends, the floodgates of eviction orders could cause thousands of people to lose their homes once the moratorium ends.

“Rochester City Court has over 600 eviction cases scheduled for January 15, the day the eviction moratorium ends,” a Facebook post from CWTU reads. “That’s about 1,400 people.”

Although the possibility of an eviction deluge exists, it has not yet made landfall. Actual evictions have remained below historical averages, according to the Princetown Eviction Lab. The moratorium itself, rental assistance and more accommodating landlords have all been suggested as possible factors behind the lower rates, which appear to be a trend for Monroe County case filings as well.

ERAP’s reopening could help those struggling with rent payments avoid eviction. However, the timing of the moratorium’s end and the reopening portal means tenants only have a few days to act.

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.

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