“How is this fair?” Issues with state rent relief and access to counsel exacerbate small landlords’ grievances with rent continuing to go unpaid
Covid-19 has presented hardships all around, especially in the housing market.
Small property owners are frustrated with New York State’s policies regarding their rental properties. They say it’s unfair that renters get to apply for government assistance while suffering no consequences when they fail to pay the rent even if they can afford it.
Joan Zhu owns a two-family apartment unit in Sheepshead Bay and hasn’t received any rental income from the tenant for the past two years. She says the individual named on the lease has the income to pay the $60,000 they owe. But because they applied for the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), which freezes action in an eviction court proceeding, that has empowered them to stop paying rent.
“How is that fair to the landlord that [tenants] can get denied, and then apply again for ERAP, and if they get denied again they still don’t have to pay for it,” Zhu said. “It can take up to 180 days for a decision, that’s six months they don’t have to pay for rent.”
In this way, small property owners say they feel as though their tenants are “cheating” the system.
While the tenant applies, ERAP provides rental assistance payments directly to landlords on behalf of low- and moderate-income households at risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability.
ERAP’s sister program, Landlord Rental Assistance Program (LRAP), provides similar benefits, however it has myriad accessibility issues, given qualifications that are hard to meet for most small landlords. Among these is the requirements that landlords have a tenant who has vacated the rental property with unpaid rental arrears or the landlord has a tenant who is residing in an apartment with rental arrears, but will not agree to apply for ERAP.
Landlords and tenants’ advocates alike are aggravated by the lack of funding for these programs. ERAP only pays for 12 months of back rent or 3 months of future rent, which for some tenants does not cover the entirety of their debt. LRAP, on the other hand, has not accepted applications since November 2021, putting landlords in a position where they must rely on tenants to either pay their rent or get funding from ERAP.
“We hear people begging all the time” for the programs’ expansion, Andrea Shapiro, director of advocacy for the Met Council on Housing, said. “Our state could decide to expand [ERAP] to cover more months. It can put in more money to expand the eligibility of the program. It’s often not that these tenants are just choosing not to pay because they are protected by the program.”
In New York City, tenants have access to some free legal assistance when they face eviction proceedings in housing court. Those who make approximately 200% of the poverty level are eligible for full representation by legal service providers, such as Legal Aid Society.
Kennisha Gilbert, who owns a duplex in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, said the courts are a failure of the system because the laws are one-sided favoring tenants.
“Someone that can afford it should not have the right to free counsel,” she said. “They should offer me the same, we make about the same salary.”
Approximately 18,000 cases have been filed since the moratorium policy expired on Jan. 22, overwhelming the court system and legal service providers who are obligated to provide counsel to those below a certain income threshold. For example, these providers in the Bronx have refused every case assigned to them during the month of March, according to a spokesperson for New York courts.
All of these issues with the courts “definitely would impact landlords as well,” Matthew Tropp, director of housing with Legal Aid Society, said. “Oftentimes, [the tenant] having an attorney helps to lead to a resolution. Most of the time, landlords’ attorneys, especially even ones who are small landlords, prefer to have an attorney on the other side to discuss that resolution.”
In order to qualify for ERAP, a household must make below 80 to120 percent of the area median income. The median income determined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for New York City is $107,000 for a three person household.
Considering the delays with the online application for ERAP, Jay Martin, executive director of Community Housing Improvement Program NYC, suggests that the ERAP determination should take place in the courts.
“This whole time the tenants are accruing more rental debt. So by the time they actually do get into court, we're seeing that they owe many more months than they would have had if they had already been in court,” he said.
Ruo Lan, a small property owner from Long Island, Nassau County, said it’s unfair for her tenant to receive government assistance while earning more than enough money.
Lan and her family own two properties. The tenant in one unit, who had received government assistance for six months, hasn’t paid rent since that assistance expired in September 2021. More than $12,600 in back rent is now owed, Lan said.
“We still need to pay the property tax, which is over $12,000 a year,” Lan said. “My husband had to start a temporary job. He is 72, so it's hard.”
Lan isn’t just worried only about the property tax bill, but for her daughter as well.
Lan’s daughter is a veteran and they bought the home so she could have somewhere to live after serving. Her daughter was homeless for part of the pandemic but has since secured a temporary job as a pharmacist at a local drugstore. Yet, she still struggles to pay her rent at her apartment.
“She served the country for seven or eight years and now she comes back and she has no home to live in because somebody is occupying her home,” Lan said.
“I'm using the savings to save up for my kids for college, to pay the mortgage to keep the house, otherwise I lose everything,” Joan Zhu, the small property owner in Brooklyn, said.
Zhu and Lan are still waiting to hear when their next court day will be but, in the meantime, they worry about their property taxes coming up and how much longer they will have to pay the mortgage on their homes out of pocket.