Renters’ Aid on the Way

Census data suggests a third of New Yorkers at risk

For the last year, many tenants and landlords have bailed to keep the boat they share from sinking. 

Their hardships are not necessarily reflected in local and state data, whose tallies of eviction filings has been depressed by court system shutdowns and a series of moratoriums imposed by the state and federal governments. But Justin Haines, the attorney in charge of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley’s Poughkeepsie office, said requests for help have come from renters with arrears as high as $18,000. 

Now, beleaguered tenants and their landlords may be able to stop bailing because of a bailout. 

On Tuesday (May 4), Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed another extension of the state’s months-long moratorium on residential and commercial evictions, which had expired on May 1. But a big motivation for the extension, to Aug. 31, is to give local municipalities and New York State more time to distribute $1.2 billion in federal funding that could erase a year’s worth of unpaid rent. 

State Sen. Sue Serino, a Republican who represents the Highlands, voted against the extension, which was also opposed by groups such as the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors, whose territory includes the Highlands. 

Assembly Member Sandy Galef, a Democrat whose district includes Philipstown, and Assembly Member Jonathan Jacobson, a Democrat whose district includes Beacon, each voted for it. 

“I know landlords are frustrated, but that’s why we still need more time” to allow renters to apply and to distribute the funding, said Haines. 

Under the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program, overseen by the U.S. Treasury Department, eligible households can receive up to a year of rental and utility assistance, plus an additional three months of assistance if needed to stabilize their housing. Payments are made directly to landlords and utility companies. An application system has not yet been established.

How Many Evictions?

The scale of possible evictions is hard to pin down because of the pandemic-related halts to court proceedings and previous moratoriums. New York’s Unified Court System provided data showing fewer than 104,000 eviction filings statewide for 2020, less than half the 249,000 filed in 2019. Filings for Beacon last year totaled 49, compared to 79 for 2019. (The court system does not compile eviction data from town and village courts. Putnam County does not have any cities.)

Nationally, the Census Bureau polls adults about their housing status for its Household Pulse Survey, which is updated every two weeks. About 34 percent of New York adults surveyed from April 14 to April 26 said they lived in households “not current on rent or mortgage where eviction or foreclosure in the next two months is either very likely or somewhat likely.” 

Dutchess’ Department of Planning and Development distributed an informal survey to property owners in early March to gauge the level of arrears locally, said Anne Saylor, the county’s deputy commissioner for housing. The survey drew responses from 48 landlords with a combined 5,640 of the county’s roughly 36,000 total apartment units, she said. 

Those owners reported 893 units in arrears, with the average renter behind 2.4 months and owing about $4,300. More than three-fourths of those renters, 681, fell behind during the pandemic, said Saylor. 

The average number of months that renters were behind during the 13-month-old pandemic may reflect the effectiveness of federal benefits, said Saylor. Renters who lost jobs during the pandemic have been able to receive supplemental unemployment payments approved by the federal government, first an extra $600 a month and then an extra $300 on top of what unemployed people received from their states. 

“The government gave people money so they could pay their bills, and I think most people did that,” she said.

The program was created with $25 billion in funding from the federal stimulus bill passed in December and given an additional $21.6 billion from the COVID-19 relief legislation passed in March. New York State will receive $800 million in funding from the first $25 billion. 

Municipalities and counties in New York with populations that exceed 200,000 people will also receive an additional $480 million from the $25 billion. Dutchess County’s allocation will be $8.7 million; Putnam County, with a population of about 100,000 people, does not qualify.

Under the federal program, eligible households must have at least one person who qualifies for unemployment or has lost income or faced significant costs or financial hardship due to the pandemic shutdown; can prove they are at risk of homelessness or “housing instability”; and has household income at or below 80 percent of the area median, which ranges from $57,360 for a single person up to $108,080 for an eight-person household in Dutchess County. 

Dutchess County announced last month the availability of $930,000 in rental assistance funding that could cover up to six consecutive months of unpaid rent. That money is from the federal CARES Act approved in March 2020. The federal government did not designate that it be used for rental assistance, but the county had flexibility in how it could be spent. 

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