Yonkers finishes distributing $14.5M in pandemic rent relief for struggling tenants
YONKERS — Vanessa Smith kept her job and worked without interruption after the pandemic struck in 2020, but she later struggled to keep up with rising food costs and other expenses and fell behind in her rent.
And kept falling, month after month.
"I didn't see a way out," recalled Smith, a mother of three who works as a safety administrator at a construction company. "I was looking into Plan B, like moving — relocating out of state."
That prospect looked likely after New York's 22-month eviction moratorium ended one year ago and Smith's landlord brought her to court. But then came a lifeline she requested but thought she would never actually get: a check from the City of Yonkers to her landlord to cover about 12 months of unpaid rent.
Smith's household was of one of 853 in Yonkers to benefit from a city program that paid $14.5 million in rent and utility bills for renters squeezed by the pandemic. It was a locally run version of the state's rental assistance program, which ended last month after paying landlords $2.7 billion on behalf of 220,000 tenants and exhausting its funds.
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Yonkers officials announced the completion of their program in January, 20 months after it opened. They created it in 2021 as an alternative to the state's program, reasoning that city agencies could distribute aid more quickly than those in Albany. They contracted with five nonprofits to handle applications and dipped into the city's $87 million in federal pandemic relief to fund the program.
"More than anyone, we know how to best serve our local tenants and landlords and connect them to our local nonprofits who are the 'boots on the ground' with those in need," Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano said in a statement.
Most places in New York relied on the state program, run by the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. In Rockland County, for example, the state paid $28 million in rent and utilities on behalf of 1,700 households, county officials said in January.
Yonkers, the state's third largest city with a population of 211,000, went its own way. So did Rochester and surrounding Monroe County; Onondaga County, where Syracuse is located; and three large Long Island towns: Hempstead, Oyster Bay and Islip.
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Yonkers wound up fielding more than 1,000 applications for rental assistance, referring some to the state after reaching its funding limit. The state program ran out of money, too. The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance "continues to seek additional federal funding to help pay further applications," Anthony Farmer, a spokesman for the office, said this week by email.
The Yonkers program, funded in two rounds, paid up to 15 months of rent for applicants in the first round and 18 months in the second, according to Jon Shenk of CLUSTER Community Services, a local nonprofit that participated and helped about 240 households.
Applicants initially had to have lost income due to the pandemic in order to qualify. But the federal government loosened rules for the second round and allowed renters with financial hardships during the pandemic to receive aid as well, Shenk said.
Shenk, who has had a 31-year career in homeless prevention, said processing the flood of requests was "intense work" for his agency, which had bilingual staff members to help Spanish-speaking applicants. But he was thrilled by the volume of people it ultimately helped with the federal funding.
"It was just amazing," he said.
Chris McKenna covers government and politics for the Journal News and USA Today Network. Reach him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Yonkers rental assistance program gave out $14.5M in aid to renters