By Sam Bojarski

Tenants throughout New York State can now apply for a portion of the $100 million in assistance made available through the COVID Rent Relief Program. But certain details about the application process could prove cumbersome for some tenants, including members of the Haitian community. 

Federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act has made the new rent relief program possible. New York State’s Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) department will accept applications through July 30, on the basis of need. While the state has a Haitian Creole version of the application materials available for download, applicants must submit their applications in English. 

Row houses on Hawthorne Street, in Brooklyn. Photo by Leonardo March

Those who need assistance with the application can call the office of District 45 Council Member Farah Louis, at 718-629-2900. The application assistance is part of an ongoing partnership with Flatbush Development Corporation and NHS Brooklyn.  

Flatbush Development Corporation can offer application assistance in Haitian Creole, while NHS Brooklyn has the capability to offer assistance in French. Louis’ office is working in tandem with these organizations to make sure that eligible community members apply for the rent relief program, according to Kristia Winter, a spokesperson for Louis. 

Yves Vilus, executive director of the tenant advocacy organization Erasmus Neighborhood Federation, said the extensive, 14-page application is time-consuming to fill out and can easily confuse some applicants. 

While one person can submit the application, all persons in a household seeking rent relief must provide proof of income. While non-citizens can receive relief, households must have at least one United States citizen to apply. 

Many in the Haitian community, particularly those who work at family-owned businesses, cannot prove their income, because they work under the table. 

“We have a lot of them in our community, so that could be a problem,” Vilus said of under-the-table employees. 

With the new public charge rule the Trump administration began enforcing this year, residents who plan to seek permanent residency status might hesitate to apply for public benefits. Undocumented residents are also hesitant to provide personal information.

“People are so desperate for the money they’re going to fill it out anyway, but they don’t say what’s going to happen if you try to get a green card, if that’s going to affect it,” Vilus said of the rent relief application. 

According to information published by HCR, eligible tenants must be considered rent burdened – paying more than 30 percent of their income toward rent – before March 1 and at the time of application. Tenants must also earn below 80 percent of the area median income, or $63,680 for a single person in New York City. During any period between April 1 and July 31, tenants must have lost income in order to qualify. The rental subsidy, paid directly to landlords, would cover the difference between rent burden on March 1 and the increase in rent burden up until the time at which one applies. 

“So, if a tenant was severely rent burdened in March, they will continue to be severely rent burdened, even with the subsidy,” said Oksana Mironova, a housing policy analyst with the Community Service Society of New York

But Mironova also noted that the overall need for New Yorkers outstrips the $100 million that the state has made available through the program. 

“To stem an avalanche of evictions, the State must do more,” she said. 

Images taken for Haitian Times, for a story on the Rent Relief Program

A modified eviction moratorium in New York remains in place until Aug. 20. Some tenants and advocacy groups continue to call for broad rent forgiveness.

“This rent relief program will provide life-saving aid to individuals and families at risk of homelessness and will stave off evictions resulting from the pandemic,” said District 42 Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte, a member of the assembly’s housing committee. 

Bichotte, who voted for the legislation to enact the COVID Rent Relief Program, said she has also introduced legislation to provide one-year mortgage forbearance for small property owners, who earn 30 percent or more of their income from rent. 

“Owners of these properties are facing foreclosure, and if they are foreclosed on, tenants occupying these units will be left without a home,” Bichotte said. 

While it is common for tenants to rent or sublet rooms without having their name appear on a lease, those who do so may have difficulty accessing assistance through the COVID Rent Relief Program. 

Existing housing assistance programs like the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) are limited to tenants whose names appear on a lease. This has made some community members, particularly Haitain seniors, ineligible. 

Applicants for the COVID Rent Relief Program must submit contact information for their landlord and proof of rent payment. 

“So those people who live in (a) basement, what’s going to happen to them? Are they going to be qualified or not? And a lot of people also rent rooms,” said Vilus.

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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