Federal pandemic rent relief largely assisted low-income Long Islanders, state data shows

The state has issued $48.7 million in federal rent relief to landlords on Long Island as of March 14, data shows. Over the course of the pandemic safety net program, most of the aid has supported the lowest income residents, with more than half of the money assisting women-run households.

The state has paid landlords in Nassau County $7.9 million and those in Suffolk County $40.7 million as of March 14, according to data from the New York Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which is distributing federal rent relief on behalf of all local governments except for the towns of Hempstead, Islip and Oyster Bay. The data shows the state spending less in Nassau County because it omits information on programs run by the towns. Hempstead, a particularly large township, has some $45.5 million in aid.

The $48.7 million OTDA has distributed is out of $82.7 million allocated for Long Island localities. Brookhaven and Babylon have exahusted their share of funding, but OTDA wouldn’t estimate how much of the remaining $34 million is still available in other jurisdictions. An undisclosed amount has been set aside for preliminarily approved applications in these localities.

Renters grieving the loss of relatives during the pandemic and coping with financial challenges described breathing easier when approved for the aid. But tenants and landlords are growing desperate in communities that have exhausted their share of funding, according to Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward Romaine.

Tenants who earn up to 80% of the median income in their county were eligible for aid, but the state prioritized the poorest applicants, people who had been unemployed for at least 90 days and residents of communities that had been particularly hard hit by COVID-19. Majority Black and Latino communities on Long Island had higher infection rates than other communities before vaccines became widely available.

As of late February, 57.7% of the assistance granted in Nassau and 64.1% of the aid awarded in Suffolk County benefited households that earn under 30% of the median income, according to OTDA data. On Long Island, 30% of the annual median income is $38,950 for a family of four. The next biggest share of aid — 30.2% in Nassau and 25.9% in Suffolk — went to families making no more than 50% of the annual median income, which is $64,950 for a family of four on the Island.

The aid may cover up to 12 months of unpaid rent and utility bills and three prospective months of rent for households that suffered financially from the pandemic.

Jesus Marte Jr., of Moriches, said just knowing he was approved is a relief. Marte estimates that he and his wife, Maria, are six months behind on their $2,300 rent.

The couple had relatives die of COVID-19 and was fearful of the virus. Marte, 55, stopped working at Walmart because of safety concerns and couldn’t afford to keep his car. He continued taking shifts at ShopRite until he suffered a hand injury that will require surgery.

“Not too long ago, I [ran] out of unemployment,” Marte said.

A chance to bounce back

With less pressure to pay back rent, Marte hopes he can find additional social service support, and ultimately, a new job. “I can work on my hand and stand up on my feet again because I get claustrophobia at home when I’m not working.”

His wife, Maria, is back working as a driver’s assistant for the school system, but was also out of work early in the pandemic.

Slightly more than half of the aid in both counties supported white households: 52.7% in Nassau and 52.4% in Suffolk, according to OTDA data current through the end of February. About 19.3% of the funding distributed in Nassau County was awarded to Black families; 32.3%, in Suffolk County. Another 10.7% of assistance in Nassau assisted Asian households; 3.3%, in Suffolk. The OTDA data shows just a sliver — about 1% — of the money supported Native Americans in both counties.

In Nassau, 19.9% of the money assisted Latino households of any race; in Suffolk, 21.6%.

Women-led families received a greater share of assistance — 53.3% in Nassau and 60.3% in Suffolk — than households headed by men, according to OTDA data current through the end of February.

Securing rent relief for her household and her 99-year-old mother has helped Graciela Arcila sleep at night, the Hempstead resident said. Arcila, a home health aide, couldn’t afford her roughly $1,200 rent while also paying for the funerals and burials of two brothers who died of COVID-19. Arcila, 52, lives with two grandchildren and a daughter, whose hours at a bank branch were reduced in 2020.

Arcila’s mother, Graciela Rodriguez, relied on a son who died for help with her rent, which just rose to $1,535. Rodriguez was worried about getting evicted before she learned she’d been approved for aid from the Town of Hempstead program, Arcila said.

“She was crying because she was so excited,” Arcila said. “Right now, I’m [trying] to work more hours to help her.”

The state funding may have been even more targeted to low-income households if lawmakers in Albany hadn’t stipulated that the state program serve those in subsidized housing last.

“It’s a bad, challenging situation for everyone, but these families in particular, we know they’re vulnerable,” said Robyn Berger-Gaston, division director at Family Service League, a social service agency that has helped with more than 500 rent relief applications.

Faced with finite resources, lawmakers gave people in subsidized housing last priority because their rent can be reduced when their income falls, according to state Assemb. Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx), who sponsored legislation setting up the state program.

“Although I recognize that this process is often easier said than done, there is a pre-existing ability to recalculate the rent share based on new income circumstances,” Dinowitz said in a statement. “I understand that many New Yorkers who have subsidized housing remain in need of help, and I think we absolutely need to address this in the budget this year.”

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