(The Center Square) – Against the backdrop of an expiring eviction moratorium, the head of a New York state agency tasked with doling out pandemic-related rental assistance dollars was grilled this week by lawmakers.
Michael Hein, commissioner of the state Office of Temporary Disability Assistance, or OTDA, went before members of three Assembly committees – Housing, Social Services and Ways and Means – during a 6-hour hearing Tuesday.
The OTDA is the state agency handling the disbursement of New York state’s allocation of $2.6 billion in emergency rental assistance program funds via the federal Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES, Act.
In early June, the OTDA began accepting applications from tenants and landlords seeking financial relief. According to the state agency, a small fraction – to the tune of $1 million – had been given to qualifying applicants by late July.
During his testimony, Hein said his agency has set a target of disbursing $780 million to applicants by Sept. 30 – a goal a number of lawmakers adamantly said was ambitious, if not seemingly insurmountable, given the lag that has occurred thus far.
“It’s deeply concerning. I don’t know, in God’s name, how you’re going to get there,” state Assemblyman Mike Lawler, R-Pearl River, said of Hein’s target goal. “I think what this shows is the administration is incapable of handling this program. We have failed the people of the state of New York, and this is a disgrace.”
Hein conceded there have been a series of challenges in the first two months of the program. He said a range of issues, many relating to communication, have been roadblocks.
With the assistance of an outside technology-based vendor, Guidehouse, Hein said the OTDA is stepping up its efforts to bring enhancements to the portal for tenants and landlords applying for emergency rental assistance program funds.
The efforts, he said, include an easier-to-find frequently asked questions page on the portal and translating information through more languages.
“I understand the frustration. I genuinely do,” Hein said. “The goal is to get the applicants that are viable, paid. We want to make sure these dollars get out the door.”
But given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the many layers of assistance that have been offered, Hein said New York is not the only state challenged with doling out the HEROES Act funds.
“I don’t know of a state in this union that has spent all this money,” Hein said.
The concerns with the slow rollout of the emergency rental assistance program crisscross with the state’s eviction moratorium, set to expire Aug. 31. Lawmakers are grappling with an extension.
State Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa, D-Manhattan, said the eviction moratorium has caused deep anxiety from constituents within her district.
“There is an absolute fear,” De La Rosa said. “The tenants are having a nervous breakdown.”
State Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, D-The Bronx, urged Hein to use whatever resources possible to advance the emergency rental assistance program rollout.
“It’s horrific what’s going on, and what potentially might go on,” Dinowitz said. “I’m not known for my patience, so please get the lead out.”
Shortly after noon, as the hearing was entering its third hour, lawmakers and the crowd in the audience erupted into applause as Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he was resigning in two weeks.
“It looks like you’ll have a new boss,” state Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, D-Brooklyn, and chair of the Ways and Means Committee, said to Hein.
In response, Hein said, “As I like to say, I work for the people of New York.”