Tenants and landlords ravaged by COVID know help is on the way. The question is when, and all eyes are on the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA).

This coming Monday, the legislature is likely to pass a three-month extension of an eviction moratorium that is currently due to expire on May 1. The law requires tenants who were negatively impact by COVID to file a hardship declaration, which will then put a stay on any housing court case.

Landlords are unhappy that the moratorium will likely be extended.

“The Assembly Dems love to portray our property owners as villains. They are not villains,” according to Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick, the ranker on the Assembly Housing committee. “They provide a safe and affordable product to people who need it. Tenants have been more than accommodated. Now we have reached a breaking point. Our property owners cannot operate without more revenue.”

But revenue is not the issue.

There is $2.4 billion from the federal government, and another $100 million in state funds, ready to be distributed under the State’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The problem? The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to begin accepting applications for funding.

When asked if this is why the legislature is planning to extend the eviction, Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society said, “Pretty much. They (OTDA) tell us they’re working on it.”

During an Assembly Minority press conference this morning, Deb Hall, the administrator of the Finger Lakes Landlord Association, said the fact that the application to apply for these funds still isn’t available is “heartbreaking.”

“In the private sector, we would have had this system up and running in a month,” Hall told Capital Tonight.  

In an emailed response to Capital Tonight, OTDA sent the following statement:

“OTDA is at work readying the launch of the $2.4 billion Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which was just approved by the legislature as part of the budget a few weeks ago, and we are moving expeditiously to get assistance to New Yorkers who need it most with the expectation that applications will open in May. This program will support New Yorkers who are experiencing financial hardship, are at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and earn up to 80 percent of area median income, with priority given to those with the lowest-incomes, the unemployed, and other vulnerable populations. In administering this program, OTDA will work closely with local governments and community-based organizations to provide outreach and application assistance, with a focus on supporting our most vulnerable neighbors.”

​Other landlords at the press conference brought up a few other sticky issues. 

For example, Rich Tyson, a real estate broker and small landlord from Rochester, raised an issue with the Emergency Rental Assistance Program that has no good answer: some landlords had rented to tenants for months during the pandemic, only to see the tenants leave without a forwarding address. 

Without a tenant’s verification that they had occupied a unit and couldn’t pay rent because of hardship linked to COVID, the landlord may not be able to recoup the money owed.

“What the moratorium is doing is crushing us at this point,” Tyson said.

The court system also came under fire.

One landlord stated that upstate housing courts have been closed for 14 months, so any landlord trying to evict a tenant cannot schedule a hearing. 

“What about pre-existing cases? Why can’t the courts open up and deal with the pre-existing cases,” asked Elyse Zaccaro, a Westhampton property owner.

But Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society, told Capital Tonight  Zaccaro was misinformed – that housing courts are indeed open, though most are virtual.

Unfortunately, none of this is as straightforward as it sounds.

Unlike New York City, there are no courts that exclusively hear housing cases in upstate New York, except for one in Buffalo.

Indeed, the Buffalo Housing Court told Capital Tonight that 289 housing cases have been filed there since January, but all are on hold.

When we checked whether housing cases are being heard in elsewhere in upstate New York like they are in New York City, Lucian Chalfen, director of Public Information for the Office of Court Administration (OCA), said in an email, “until the eviction moratorium is lifted, while we are anticipating a large number of filings, we don’t know how many cases may have settled or otherwise adjudicated until the case is calendared.” 

So, are upstate housing courts hearing cases or not? 

“There’s an enormous amount of discretion from jurisdiction to jurisdiction,” Rebecca Garrard, campaigns manager for Housing Justice, told Capital Tonight.   

For example, in places like Syracuse, Yonkers and Saratoga, housing cases have indeed been heard, she explained, while stating that her organization has seen a tremendous amount of abuse in multiple municipalities. 

“I think the court (Office of Court Administration) would like to maintain the illusion that there is a uniformity in implementation that exists statewide, that, in fact, does not exist,” Garrard explained. “That is directly related to the fact that in upstate we do not have specialized courts and we do not have judges with specialized backgrounds.”

While the housing court issue is one piece of the larger housing puzzle, what is clear is that tenants and landlords want the same thing: For the money to start flowing. 

Once the OTDA spigot opens, ERAP will cover up to 12 months of rent and utility bills that have accrued since March 13, 2020. Applicants who spend at least 30% of their monthly income on rent may receive another three months of aid.