Why Isn’t New York Offering Paper Applications for COVID Rent Relief?

The $115 million state contract for administering the program required a paper application. Without it, tenants who can’t access technology may be getting left behind.

Andrew Giambrone   ·   September 2, 2021
OTDA Commissioner Michael Hein testifies at a legislative hearing on the rent relief program on August 10. | Office of Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal

New York’s slow distribution of $2.7 billion in emergency rent relief funds became a major scandal in the final months of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tenure, with lawmakers and residents pushing for fixes as applicants encountered numerous problems, including glitches in the application portal, poor communication, and processing delays. Newly sworn-in Gov. Kathy Hochul has made it a priority to dispense the aid, and the program has seen significant improvements in recent weeks.

But applicants to New York’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) still face another barrier: the absence of a paper application. The program, which covers up to a year of rent and utility arrears and three months of prospective rent, is only accepting applications through the online portal and over the phone, creating a particular challenge for New Yorkers who lack technology access or literacy.

That’s despite the fact that the $115 million state contract for rolling out the program — awarded in early May to Guidehouse, a global consultancy based in Northern Virginia with close ties to Cuomo — required a paper application option in multiple languages, according to a partially redacted copy of the document New York Focus obtained through a public records request.

Advocates for tenants say without a paper option, members of vulnerable groups including low-income and older people could be deprived of the urgently needed relief. And even though New York just extended its eviction moratorium for a few months, these individuals could remain at long-term risk of displacement and homelessness if they can’t access the program, which provides eviction protectionsfor applicants.

“So many of the people who apply for benefits are either disabled or come from communities that have very little access to technology,” Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney at New York City’s Legal Aid Society, told New York Focus. “So you need to account for that. One of the ways you do that is not require that people have email addresses and apply to an online application.”

A Contractual Obligation

Under the contract, Guidehouse is supposed to supply the paper version in English and at least seven other languages, as well as “alternative formats” as needed, to New York’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), the agency overseeing ERAP. The program’s customer service workers also must be able to “download, print, and mail such paper applications upon request by an individual.”

“The Contractor shall be responsible for developing, deploying, and maintaining an online application and paper application, staffing, providing quality control and oversight, and overall program delivery,” the scope of work section reads. “[The paper] application shall contain questions and other information sufficient to gather the same data as the online application.”

Page 142 of T000926 OTDA Guidehouse ERAP Contract_Redacted

Contributed to DocumentCloud by Andrew Giambrone (New York Focus) • View document or read text

But in a statement, OTDA spokesperson Anthony Farmer confirmed the agency “is not currently accepting paper applications in order to streamline program operations.” He added that people can receive help applying from more than 125 community-based organizations across New York.

Farmer didn’t respond to follow-up questions about the Guidehouse contract or whether OTDA plans to offer paper applications in the future.

A spokesperson for Guidehouse would only say the company “has fulfilled its contractual obligations with respect to paper applications, including those reasonable accommodation requests of braille, large font, and translated languages,” and referred New York Focus to the state for other inquiries. The contract says neither Guidehouse nor its subcontractors “shall make any statement to the press” about ERAP “without the prior written approval of OTDA.”

The Treasury Department, which is shepherding $46.5 billion in rent relief funds to hundreds of jurisdictions across the country, recommends they offer their constituents “an alternate means of applying, such as a paper form or with support from [Emergency Rental Assistance] counselors.” Jurisdictions including Miami, Washington, D.C., Minnesota, Maine, Massachusetts, Georgia, and Oregon say they’re accepting paper applications.

Other public benefits programs in New York, such as food stamps and cash assistance— both also run by OTDA — accept paper applications. So did the precursor to ERAP, the federally funded COVID Rent Relief Program. It received more than 11,000 paper applications as of last October, state agency Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) reported. That was about a tenth of HCR’s caseload at the time, with the agency saying it had finished reviewing all online applications and “the majority of paper applications.”

Some Tenants Left Behind

It’s impossible to know how many New Yorkers haven’t sought the funds for want of a paper option, but it’s clear some can’t complete the online application on their own.

“There’s a very large population of people who are perhaps in the greatest need, who do not have access to the internet or technology to complete an application online,” said Kevin Quinn, a supervising attorney at the Center for Elder Law & Justice, a Buffalo-based nonprofit that provides legal services in Western New York. “We work with many folks who are homebound and can’t get out to meet people who have access to technology.”

Davidson, of the Legal Aid Society, said the pervasive technical issues at the program’s outset — including an inoperable save-and-resume function that wasn’t fixed until August — ended up diverting resources from community outreach toward troubleshooting applications.

“From the beginning, we knew we’d have clients who couldn’t do an online application, who we could help fill out a paper application and get [it] in, or if we couldn’t then a neighbor or child could help,” she said. “So we did ask to have an option for people filling out a paper application. But we were told it was not possible.”

More than 40 Democratic state legislators also raised this issue to then-Gov. Cuomo in a July 29 letter that cited “a refusal by program administrators to offer paper forms,” among other concerns about ERAP. “[O]ur inboxes and phone lines have been flooded with constituents who have had issues applying — tenants who are facing extreme financial hardship, those without access to a computer or internet, non-English speakers, and those with limited technology proficiency — the very populations that ERAP was envisioned to serve,” they wrote.

Governor Hochul pledged to enlist a “top team to identify and remove any barriers.” | Office of Kathy Hochul

New York’s “digital divide” — that is, unequal technology access among different groups — has been well-documented for years. A 2019 report by the New York City comptroller found nearly a third of local households, or about 2.2 million people, lacked home broadband access, including 42% of people 65 and older and 44% of people in poverty. Some of the state’s rural areas also lack broadband.

The divide has been of acute concern during the pandemic, when students and teachers were forced into remote learning, office employees had to telework, and people toiled to get unemployment insurance and other benefits. Back in 2018, 15% of the New York City residents on food stamps, cash assistance, and Medicaid had no internet, according to the advocacy organization Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York.

“The fact that the paper application wasn’t available from the start is another indication that this program was designed to be easier on the agency side than on the user side,” said Jay Martin, the executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, a landlord trade association in New York City with more than 4,000 members.

Some property owners appear to be vexed by the online process too. Mr. Moran, a tenant in Westchester who asked to be identified only by his last name, told New York Focus he helped his landlord, an older woman, fill out her side of the application after he’d completed his side with assistance from a local nonprofit.

“She saw how time-consuming it was,” Moran said, noting that he used his tablet to upload her documents and finished the rest on her computer while speaking with the ERAP call center. “If I hadn’t helped her, it would not be done.” He said they’re still waiting for the payment and that paper forms would simplify the process for many people.

“Remove any barriers”

On her first day in office, Gov. Kathy Hochul pledged to speed up the aid, in part by promoting ERAP in areas with low application rates, reviewing its workflow, and reassigning 100 contractors to work with landlords on pending applications. She also said she would hire more staff to “process applications immediately” and would enlist a “top team to identify and remove any barriers.”

So far, the effort seems to be paying off: Until recently one of the slowest states in the country, New York now ranks first nationally in committed rent relief payments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. But Hochul hasn’t addressed the issue of paper applications. (Her office didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

Yesterday, lawmakers held a special session called by Hochul to address ERAP and the state’s lapsed eviction moratorium, which provided another layer of protection for indebted renters. They extended the state moratorium until Jan. 15, 2022 and adapted it to an unfavorable Supreme Court ruling from August.

But however long evictions are stalled, only ERAP will resolve renters’ debts and make landlords whole. Some additional funding was allocated for it at the special session, along with funding for tenant legal services, and it was extended to localities that initially opted out to run their own programs.

Meanwhile, issues with the online portal persist. “I can understand how utilizing this online program would theoretically streamline this process, but in actuality, the portal has been plagued with problems,” said Virginia Foulkrod, the executive director of the Hudson Valley Justice Center, a legal aid nonprofit based in White Plains. “We’ve experienced significant periods of downtime, both for the client portal and the landlord portal.”

Foulkrod points out that some of her organization’s clients don’t have high-speed internet or a smartphone — and even those with smartphones may be on limited data plans or unable to scan and upload the required documents. “These are individuals who are helped by a paper application and could move forward more quickly,” she explains.

Quinn, of the Center for Elder Law & Justice, says he witnessed problems with the online portal just last week. His organization was assisting several people with applications at a community center when the website crashed on the certification page. They couldn’t proceed any further.

Andrew Giambrone is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He covers politics, social issues, and cities. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGiambrone.
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