New rental network lends hand to struggling tenants

Bronx nonprofits put $5.2M in city grant funds to good use helping others

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Jordan Dewbre wants to help as many people as possible during these difficult times.

As a BronxWorks attorney, Dewbre is often buried under stacks of paperwork while trying to assist people with everything from immigration to housing issues.

“We are contracted to provide application assistance for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program,” Dewbre said, “which is the big statewide program for rental arrears that may have been accumulated during the pandemic,”

But now BronxWorks’ efforts go beyond even that. It has joined a consortium of nonprofits to form the Bronx Rental Assistance Network — or BxRAN — to help connect those renters in need with the state’s emergency financial assistance program.

More importantly, the network offers these experts not just in English and Spanish, but myriad languages, finding ways to accommodate different communities with different needs.

The network brings together BronxWorks and five other non-profits — Bronx Legal Services, Help USA, FedCap, WHEDco, and the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center. The groups collectively picked up a $5.2 million grant from the city’s human resources administration.

“What we do here at BronxWorks does not determine eligibility,” Dewbre said. “We just help folks submit applications and submit documents.”

The actual decision-makers choosing between approving or denying applications? That’s the city’s temporary and disability assistance department, which has contracted a completely separate group — the embattled consultancy firm Guidehouse Inc., which lawmakers have scrutinized for failing to meet benchmarks spending $115 million in state funds.

Newsday was the first to report Guidehouse received a no-bid contract with the state after a former aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo took a job there.

Dewbre doesn’t want that to discourage anyone from participating in what BxRAN has to offer — BronxWorks has no direct communication with Guidehouse.

Although it might sound easy helping someone through a financial assistance application process, it’s actually not. The original application program resulted in a large number of frustrated applicants.

“We’ve had folks come in and attempt to apply four or five times,” Dewbre said, “and just for whatever reason — whether it was glitches on the website or failure to complete the application in one attempt — it didn’t work.”

One glaring omission from the website in the beginning is that it did not offer applicants a “save and resume later” option — meaning anyone wanting help had to start and finish the lengthy application in a single session.

That’s since been fixed, Dewbre said, making the process smoother for people to go home and retrieve required documents.

The website also liked crashing, causing many to lose all the progress they had made on their application. It didn’t help, Dewbre said, that many logged onto the site with few technological resources and knowledge, like the ability to upload tangible documents, or simply to just have connection to the internet in the first place.

Marisol Baez can certainly identify with some of those issues.

As the ERAP supervisor at Mosholu Montefiore Community Center, Baez is largely responsible for helping Bronx tenants apply for rental assistance. As far as the state is concerned in getting ERAP going, Baez believes there’s a lot of room for improvement.

“It’s hard to get through,” she said. “I mean, you get through to somebody, but the answers are still so limited. We don’t get (helpful) answers that we need.”

Baez’s biggest challenge now is getting people with legitimate concerns to apply for rental assistance, like being undocumented.

Baez has found success helping undocumented immigrants apply for ERAP, including one woman who was recently approved for $16,000 in back rent to her landlord.

New York has had one of the largest rental assistance disbursement programs in the country, with more than $644 million already allocated to New York City alone.

The state was initially slow at getting those funds to the families who needed them. Two months in, only 4 percent of those who applied for rental assistance got approval.

That was fixed as part of the executive branch’s transition from the disgraced Andrew Cuomo to Kathy Hochul. Now New York will pay up to 12 months of rent for those who were negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The list of qualifications, however, can be a hurdle for tenants all in itself.

ERAP only looks at arrears that began in March 2020, and tenants have to prove how the pandemic hurt them financially, like through a reduction in income or outright losing their job.

Additionally, anyone finding their household expenses significantly increasing may also qualify for ERAP, Dewbre said. Those costs can include anything from funeral expenses to remote learning — and even remote work expenses.

Even price hikes for everyday toiletries and food can help some qualify for assistance.

“As long as someone can show how they were financially impacted by the pandemic, it can help them qualify for assistance,” Dewbre said.

The state also helps those behind on gas and electric bills, with the chance to cover up to a full year of utilities. That is as long as they are behind on their rent, too.

The entire process can only be successful if both a tenant and their landlord take part, Dewbre said. After the tenant files the initial application, they’re given a case number to share with their landlord for their portion.

Despite some of the program’s early struggles, Dewbre points out a remarkable silver lining to all of it.

“This is one of the few times — possibly the only time in recent history — when the tenant and landlord’s interest have been aligned,” he said. “It’s not money that the tenants have to pay back, and there are a lot of landlords out there struggling right now.

“Whether you’re a tenant, landlord or know somebody who needs help with rent, now is the time reach out.”

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