Outside Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Murray Hill office, small landlords traded war stories Monday morning about New York’s rent relief program.
“Three years and 18 months,” said one, double-fisting protest signs denoting how long he’d shouldered his tenants’ arrears.
“I’m out $75,000 right now,” another said. “Three years. One house.”
Terri, an organizer of the “landlords rights protest” who asked that her last name be omitted for fear of retribution, said her tenant hadn’t paid rent since November 2020. Tired of waiting, she’d agreed to settle, eating $40,000 of arrears in an agreement that should have seen the renter evicted in August.
“The judge told him he must leave, but he’s still here,” the owner of two properties in Queens said.
New York’s emergency rental assistance program was intended to make owners whole while protecting tenants from eviction. But an ERAP application to the portal has instead become a get-out-of-housing-court-free card for renters and a money suck for some owners.
Small landlords without portfolios large enough to dilute those debts took to the streets Monday to blame the state’s Democratic leadership, using November’s election to amplify their message.
“You don’t listen to us. What do we do? We vote them out,” a spokesperson for the Chinese-American landlords organizing the protest shouted through a megaphone.
Their hope: Republican candidate Lee Zeldin upsets Hochul and fixes the program or at least strips the protections that spare tenants from housing court.
Of the 200-some landlords who gathered at 41st Street and Third Avenue to protest the state-run program, a number counted themselves as lifelong liberals determined to defect to the GOP.
“I’m a Democrat voting for Zeldin,” said June Margolin, a Long Island landlord who’d leased a unit in the single-family home she owns with her husband Lance.
The couple’s renter stopped paying during the pandemic. The Margolins sued to evict her when Hochul and the Democratic legislature let the state’s repeatedly extended eviction moratorium lapse in January. But the couple were blocked by the tenant’s rent relief application, though it was incomplete.
After calls to ERAP’s hotline proved unhelpful, Margolin called her Assemblyman, Steve Stern. His office instructed her to ask the agency that runs the program, the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, to let her submit the renter’s information, herself.
“They told me to call the call center and say these words: ‘Please show me how to upload missing documents to my tenants’ ERAP application,’” Margolin quoted. “If you don’t say those words, they don’t tell you you can do it.”
The ordeal inspired Margolin to track landlords’ experiences with the program. “The survey results show that about 93 percent will also not vote Kathy Hochul back into office,” Margolin said.
Hochul, who leads Zeldin in statewide polling, has been largely silent on ERAP since the portal reopened in January. Zeldin, for his part, has not made it a campaign issue, instead focusing on crime.
The governor had shuttered the program late last year when it initially ran out of funds. But a judge’s order forced the state to reopen it on the expectation that more relief would flow in. Very little did.
In 10 months, the rent aid program has received just a sprinkling of additional cash. The state included $800 million in its budget and got from the U.S. Treasury $119 million in March and $99.4 million this month.
Hochul, who sends daily press releases announcing state grants of as little as a few million dollars for various programs, did not even announce the latest rent aid infusion, which amounted to just 6 percent of the state’s estimated need.
Margolin claims she’s struggled to connect with the governor’s office on the issue. The activist sent Hochul her survey results at Stern’s suggestion and eventually got a meeting scheduled with Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado.
But Delgado canceled and rescheduled for Oct. 5 — Yom Kippur. “To even consider that is offensive.” Margolin said.
Eventually, she was able to hop on a meeting the landlord group Small Property Owners of New York had scheduled with Delgado to discuss good cause eviction. She’s unsure what her next steps might be.
It’s also unclear what Zeldin might do to fix the program. The Republican House member from Long Island has not expressed public views on rent relief.
Protest organizers initially expected Zeldin to appear at the Monday protest. But Margolin said the event did not make his schedule.
Other Republican hopefuls did show, pledging support to property owners.
“I’m aware of this problem; our ticket is aware of this problem,” attorney general candidate Michael Henry told the crowd.
“You are going to have a voice in my office starting in January,” he declared, although he is considered a longshot against incumbent Letitia James. No Republican has won statewide office since 2002.
A Republican candidate for state Senate, Stefano Forte, also spoke.
Some landlords are optimistic that a change in leadership might spur an investigation into the program.
Others, though, just want the portal shuttered and the protections it affords tenants revoked, so that landlords can try to get back rent or evictions the old-fashioned way, in court.
Their picket signs largely reflected that desire. Slogans included “End ERAP Now,” and “We work hard/ We are not banks!/ Expedite eviction.”
“ERAP is poison,” the small owner Terri said, while passing around a sign-up sheet for future gatherings.
The state has the power to shutter the ERAP portal. After the state reopened the program early this year, OTDA appealed and was granted a stay that allows it to close the portal.
However, the agency has declined to comment on whether it will exercise that right.