Xing Hui Zheng, Assistant Director of Houston Street Center at University Settlement, presented testimony to the New York State Assembly Standing Committees on Housing, Social Services, and Ways and Means.
Read the full testimony below or click here.
Testimony of University Settlement
Before the Hearing to Examine the Application Process and Implementation of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP)
August 10, 2021
Presented by Xing Hui Zheng, Assistant Director of Houston Street Center at University Settlement
My name is Xing Hui Zheng, and I am the assistant director of Houston Street Center at University Settlement, an enroller organization for the ERAP program. University Settlement is a 135-year-old settlement house that provides holistic programming to families across Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Along with Lower East Side coalition partners Cooper Square Committee (CSC), Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC) and Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), University Settlement is honored to be helping households apply for ERAP in four zip codes in Lower Manhattan. To date, our coalition has helped 120 households apply for ERAP. To our knowledge, none of our applicants have received aid.
I will focus my testimony on our experiences as we have been assisting tenants apply for these necessary funds since early June.
First, many tenants that we work with don’t understand if or whether they are qualified for aid, and many don’t understand the application process. As the application is only available online, this creates a burden on many of the people we work with, who do not have access to a computer or internet or have little digital fluency. The website is unreliable and difficult to navigate, and once they start the application process, tenants are often unable to answer the many technical questions on the application – for example, tenants may not know the type of housing they live in or the type of benefits they’ve been receiving.
Additionally, many tenants don’t realize they need to gather documents in advance of starting the application. Many tenants struggle to compile or may not even have some of these required documents.
As you may know, the ERAP website crashes often, and as tenants cannot save their application midway through, they must devote a significant amount of time all at once to complete their application. If tenants do not have all required documents assembled prior to starting the application and need time to gather documents, the website often crashes, requiring them to start their application over.
These issues are further magnified for tenants who speak languages other than English or have difficulty reading English. Additionally, homebound seniors and special needs individuals who cannot leave the house are unable to access assistance with their applications via phone or online. They also cannot get assistance on uploading their documents.
In short, we worry that many of our neighbors who most need this aid are unable to receive it due to how the application process was set up.
Second, after submitting the application, tenants receive very little communication about the status of their application. As we are the organization providing application assistance, tenants often call us to follow up rather than the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which is meant to be the resource for ERAP related issues. We do not have any information on application status, and when this happens, our staff is pulled away from assisting new applicants.
Third, we know that there are some landlords who are reluctant to participate in ERAP. We believe that landlords should receive more outreach and education about ERAP programs, so all landlords understand the benefits of working with their tenants about ERAP.
Finally, as this program rolled out on June 1, and we are already in the second week of August, we are concerned that so many of the people we have helped at the beginning of June still have their cases marked as “pending.” This is generating significant anxiety for tenants, and we hope that there can be further communication to applicants of their status.
In summary, the ERAP program is an invaluable and urgent resource for so many of our neighbors who need rental assistance. We, along with our partner organizations, are eager to find the best, most streamlined way to help the most people access this resource. We believe the ERAP program would be significantly improved if tenants could access a simplified, user-friendly website that allowed more people to fill out the application for aid independently. We would also recommend more flexible, non-website-based options for many of our neighbors who do not have access to technology or English language fluency.
We would also appreciate more consistent support from OTDA. In our experience, when tenants and CBOs contact OTDA, the information provided is not always accurate or consistent, which slows down the process.