Glitches Persist Week Into NY's Pandemic Rent Relief Program

By Emma Whitford
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Law360 (June 9, 2021, 5:19 PM EDT) -- The agency behind a New York state program to distribute about $2.4 billion in federal pandemic rental assistance says it has accepted more than 63,000 applications in the week since the online application launched, though technical glitches persist.

In an email Tuesday to organizations that are assisting people with applications, Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance Commissioner Michael Hein celebrated the portal's June 1 launch while acknowledging one issue: An option to pause an application and resume it later has been temporarily suspended. The issue affects the tenant portion of the application, OTDA said.

"As a result, households that have started but not completed an application cannot resume the stored application and complete it," Hein wrote in the email, which was viewed by Law360. "This functionality will likely remain unavailable for a few weeks. For now, individuals who have started and saved an application, but not completed it, are directed to resubmit a new application."

New York received one of the largest allocations of federal pandemic rental assistance in the country, and was among the last jurisdictions to launch its Emergency Rental Assistance Program, as stress mounted among tenants and landlords alike.

The vendor that OTDA selected to build the portal, Guidehouse Inc., will contact tenants who need to restart their application, Hein said in his Tuesday email. "We regret this inconvenience and understand the challenges it poses for some applicants that had already started an application," he said.

The news frustrated advocates who are assisting tenants with an application they said is lengthy and complicated to begin with. "If it were a very short application it wouldn't be such a significant issue," said Marika Dias, attorney and director of the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York City.

Jay Martin is director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, a trade group for New York City landlords. He said that a save-and-resume function is also important for landlords and property managers who are trying to help their tenants fill out the applications and may be juggling several at once.

"When you're dealing with a multi-page application, which requires multiple parties, it really requires the ability to save multiple applications," he said.

Advocates said they are also experiencing headaches that might have been preempted if OTDA had invited them to test out the application portal before June 1.

On the tenant side, people have found it difficult to check the status of their application. On the landlord side, the online portal doesn't easily accommodate property owners with portfolios spanning multiple buildings.

"Every one of these things in and of itself isn't terrible, but altogether they are creating a situation where landlords who want to participate are having trouble doing so," said Olga Someras, general counsel for the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord trade group.

Lakisha Morris is director of operations for community outreach services at Catholic Charities, an organization that has received government funding to help Manhattan tenants apply for the ERAP program.

"What would have been helpful was [for OTDA] to work with the lead organizations to get our feedback," Morris said. "Have us test it out, [and] do a training on it. Last week up until today, we're learning as we're going along with the clients."

Morris also reported ongoing issues with uploading documents.

"The system shuts down — it says you can't upload at this time," she said.

The stakes are high, as qualifying tenants and their landlords can apply to receive up to one year of missed rent, and, in certain circumstances, up to three months of future rent. Utility arrears can also be reimbursed. OTDA has estimated that the program will serve between 170,000 and 200,000 households.

Petra Benjamin, a tenant in Crown Heights, told Law360 that she is seeking help filling out her application from Crown Heights Mutual Aid, a grassroots group that organized during the pandemic to deliver groceries to neighbors. She said that she has not been able to pay rent since April 2020, when her nannying work dried up.

"I needed some help," she explained. "Because you have to put in all of your months of your electric bill and your gas bill, and all those types of things, so you need some help to do that stuff."

A representative of OTDA told Law360 on Wednesday that the number of applications impacted by the pause-and-resume glitch hasn't been determined.

Applications will be processed in four to six weeks from the date of submission, OTDA added, though the time frame might vary "based upon the completeness of the application, by both the tenant and landlord, and all the correct documentation being submitted."

"Minimal technical issues are being quickly addressed as they are encountered," the representative said.

Judith Goldiner, attorney in charge of the civil law reform unit at the Legal Aid Society, told Law360 that her team is in communication with OTDA, and that she's hopeful these issues will be resolved.

Thousands of applications have been submitted despite these glitches, Goldiner noted. Legal Aid is hosting training events to maximize the number of people available to walk applicants through the process. The organization is also part of a coalition of groups running a helpline to assist undocumented applicants.

"I think it's a really good start, but I think if they could solve the problems we've identified we'd obviously have a lot more in," Goldiner said. "We want to encourage people to apply and not be dissuaded by whatever glitches there are."

--Editing by Ellen Johnson.

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