Housing Protest Focuses Ire on Cuomo
With New York State’s moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 epidemic scheduled to expire August 31, more than 800,000 households are so far behind in their rent that they are in danger of losing their homes — but the state’s rent relief program has been moving at a near-glacial pace.
“Almost all of us are immigrants who were unable to qualify for assistance and lost jobs at the beginning of the pandemic,” Magali Mecalco of Williamsburg said during a protest outside Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan office Aug. 4.
Speaking in Spanish through a translator from the neighborhood group Los Sures, she said that most of the tenants in her building, where rents of $1,800 to $2,100 a month are common, owe more than $20,000 in back rent. Their landlady has not yet filed eviction papers against anyone, she said, “but we’re worried that in the future she might try to.”
An immigrant from Mexico City with two children, she says she was working as a housecleaner, but stopped when the pandemic hit. She has applied to the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, but has been told multiple times to resend documents.
“They tell us they can’t find them,” she says.
“My mom works three jobs. My dad’s not working because he has health problems,“ says Kimberly Ramirez, 15, who lives in the same building. They applied for the ERAP program two months ago, but haven’t gotten a response.
New York State has $2.7 billion appropriated for the ERAP program: $2.3 billion in federal aid plus $400 million in state funds. More than 160,000 people had filed completed applications as of July 19. But as of August 2, only 55 households had actually had any of their back rent paid, a spokesperson for state Senator Jabari Brisport (D-Brooklyn) said.
“In New York, barely anybody has seen that rent check, because of the governor’s failure to roll out the Emergency Rental Assistance Program,” Brisport told the crowd of more than 150 people.
The protest was demanding that the state Legislature go back into session and extend the eviction moratorium until June 2022, the final deadline for New York to distribute the federal COVID rent-relief funds to tenants and landlords.
But coming the day after state Attorney General Letitia James issued a report declaring the governor guilty of repeated sexual harassment, it segued into denunciations of Cuomo and calls for his resignation or impeachment. One sign read, “Evict Governor Perv, Not New Yorkers.”
State Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) said the report corroborated that Cuomo had a “toxic, bullying governing style,” and that his staff was so focused on protecting him politically that they “can’t worry about people remain in their homes.”
The governor announced on Aug. 10 that he would resign, effective in two weeks. He will be succeeded by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.
“Sexual harassment is fundamentally about abuse of power,” said Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn), adding that “incompetence” and “cronyism” were behind the failure to distribute the ERAP funds included in the state budget passed four months ago.
The state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which administers the program, did not respond to a message. It has said that payments will be delivered soon, now that technical problems have been sorted out.
As of late July, New York and South Carolina were the only states that had not yet distributed any rental aid, the New York Times reported. Texas had aided more than 93,000 households and California more than 76,000.
In early July, the Housing Justice for All coalition, which helped organize the protest, warned Gov. Cuomo that there were several major problems with the ERAP application process, including that tenants could only apply online; the Website often crashed before they could finish filling out the lengthy form; and the foreign-language translations were inaccurate.
Several people said they had had problems uploading the documents needed to apply. Edith Cervantes of Corona, Queens, speaking in Spanish, told the crowd that she had to apply twice. The first time, she said, she was told that the agency couldn’t find her documents.
Kim Statuto of the Bronx says her daughter, a special-education teacher who lost the work teaching after-school classes that she’d relied on for extra income, is now several months behind on the rent for her apartment.
“All they keep doing is sending her emails saying, ‘submit this document, submit that document,’” Statuto says. “Nothing.“
“People have applied for the funds, and if they don’t get it, they’re on the chopping block,” says Wasim Lone of the housing advocacy group Good Old Lower East Side.
Lower East Side musician Ray Santiago says he hadn’t gotten any response to his application, but so far, his landlord has been OK with being told that “he’s going to get his money sooner or later.”
Other people have housing problems far beyond the pandemic, reflecting the scrambling they have to do in a city where housing costs have been exploding for decades. One Flatbush resident said that she’s illegally renting a room in someone else’s apartment, and got a notice that she has to move out by Aug. 18. Sherease Torain of Crown Heights says her 97-year-old grandmother, a retired hospital dietitian, lost ownership of her home in a title-fraud scam, and has had her pension and Social Security income seized.
A national eviction moratorium established by the federal Centers for Disease Control expired July 31, but with the Biden administration under political pressure —including a sit-in by Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) — the CDC agreed to extend it until Oct. 3 in areas severely affected by COVID-19, which the President said includes 90% of the nation.
The ERAP program makes payments directly to landlords, but the landlord has to agree to accept them, as well as to maintain the dwelling and not evict the tenant while receiving the payments.
Allilsa Fernandez of Jamaica, who uses the pronoun “they,” lost their job as a home-health aide at the beginning of the pandemic, and now works part-time as a peer mental-health counselor. They and their roommate are now 15 months behind in their rent and owe $30,000. But Fernandez says their landlord, who has filed eviction papers against the two, refused to submit the information needed to receive the payments.
“I’m stuck,” Fernandez says. “And this was supposed to be the relief.”
Reprinted with permission from LaborPress.