Comments by New York Legal Assistance Group Before the New York City Department of Finance regarding: Proposed Amendments to Section 1, Title 19, Chapter 52 of the Rules of the City of New York, to allow Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption and Disability Rent Increase Exemption Program Participants to file renewal applications past the specified deadline under certain conditions.

September 21, 2015

Commissioner Jacques Jiha and staff, good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to speak about the proposed amendments to Section 1, Title 19, Chapter 52 of the Rules of the City of New York, which proposes an extension to allow SCRIE and DRIE participants to file renewal applications past the specified deadline under certain conditions. My name is Emily Veale, and I am a Staff Attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) in the Housing Project. NYLAG is a nonprofit law office dedicated to providing free legal services in civil law matters to low-income New Yorkers. NYLAG serves immigrants, seniors, the homebound, families facing foreclosure, renters facing eviction, low-income consumers, those in need of government assistance, children in need of special education, domestic violence victims, persons with disabilities, patients with chronic illness or disease, low-wage workers, low-income members of the LGBTQ community, Holocaust survivors, as well as others in need of free legal services.  I am joined today by Megan O’Byrne, who is a Staff Attorney in the LegalHealth.  LegalHealth, a division of NYLAG, partners with medical professionals to address the non-medical needs of low-income people with serious health problems.

First, we would like to strongly commend the Department of Finance on its administration of the SCRIE and DRIE programs.  NYLAG has hundreds of clients who are seniors or have disabilities, many of whom live in rent stabilized or otherwise subsidized apartments, for whom the SCRIE and DRIE programs are a great relief and often their only means of remaining in their affordable, long-term homes.  The proposed amendment, which would extend the time SCRIE and DRIE participants have to renew their applications under certain circumstances will do much to help participants maintain their SCRIE and DRIE benefits, even when they face medical or exigent circumstances that delay their renewals. While this kind of extension will certainly aid SCRIE and DRIE participants who might otherwise lose their benefits, we believe the program could do more to ensure eligible SCRIE and DRIE participants keep their benefits, thus ensuring that they will be able to remain in their affordable homes.

Although illness and natural disasters may certainly account for a SCRIE or DRIE holder’s failure to timely renew their benefit, any amendment to current SCRIE and DRIE policy should recognize that there are many reasons why a SCRIE or DRIE holder may fail to renew timely.  A SCRIE or DRIE holder is, by virtue of being a senior or disabled, especially vulnerable.  Specifically, the proposed amendment does not include any health condition that does not rise to the level of a hospital stay.  Many of our clients are admitted to nursing homes for temporary rehabilitation prior to returning to their apartments.  Further, the proposed rule only applies to clients who have health conditions that rise to the level of a disability under the ADA.  For SCRIE holders, their age and health, by virtue of being seniors, may prevent them from quickly renewing their applications or being as proactive as a younger person might be.  Thus, we think the rule could be expanded to address the reality of life for many seniors.

Another way to expand the rule and greatly benefit SCRIE and DRIE holders is to include language barriers as an acceptable reason to increase the deadline to renew.  Often times our clients fail to renew in time because of an inability to understand the documentation they receive.  English is not the first language for many SCRIE and DRIE holders and they should not be penalized for being non-English speaking.

Since we have the opportunity to discuss SCRIE and DRIE generally, we believe there are other ways that the program can be improved.  A recurring problem our clients face is the loss of SCRIE or DRIE benefits because the clients do not file a Benefit Takeover Application within the 60 day period required by the program.  Many of our clients are in households that receive SCRIE or DRIE benefits but are not themselves the benefit recipient.  Although many of these clients are eligible to succeed to SCRIE and DRIE benefits after the death or vacature of the benefit-recipient, they are often unaware of the 60 day deadline to submit a Benefit Takeover Application.  Additionally, if the household is dealing with the loss of the benefit recipient, managing the SCRIE or DRIE benefits is often the furthest thing from their minds.  Coupled with the fact that the landlord receives six additional months of the SCRIE or DRIE benefit after its termination, it can be many months or sometimes years before clients become aware that the household has lost the benefit.  By this point, they might be thousands of dollars in arrears.  A client of ours faced this exact issue when her partner of 40 years, who was the SCRIE holder, passed away suddenly.  The client was SCRIE-eligible herself, but was unaware that a Benefit Takeover existed, or that she only had 60 days to apply for one.  She only became aware of the Benefit Takeover when she received a notice stating that the household’s benefit had been terminated, when it was already too late to apply for a Benefit Takeover.  At that point, she had accrued thousands of dollars of arrears and was at risk of eviction.We would like to remind this body that the stress of an impending eviction further affects the health and wellbeing of this already vulnerable population.

We would also like to take this opportunity to suggest that the rule also include language that allows the Department of Finance to retain the discretion that it already employs in assisting senior and disabled New Yorkers preserve their affordable housing.  The purpose of the rule should not be to limit the agency’s ability to protect affordable housing for New York’s most vulnerable population; therefore, including language clarifying that the Department of Finance retains its discretion to allow SCRIE AND DRIE holders to retain their benefits where appropriate should be included.

In sum, we commend the Department of Finance for its great work with the SCRIE and DRIE programs, but strongly suggest that the any filing deadline be greatly extended and any exceptions to the filing deadlines to be broadened so as to better serve the very vulnerable SCREI and DRIE population, many of whom are unnecessarily at risk of eviction because of the current deadlines, and many of whom who suffer great stress and become more ill as a result of having to deal with possibly being evicted from their long-time homes.

We would be happy to discuss our proposals further with the Department of Finance or other advocates and work together to make this program even better than it is.  Again, we commend the Department of Finance and those who have already worked on placing this program in existence, as well as improving it.

Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments today.

Respectfully submitted,

Emily Veale, Staff Attorney, Housing Project

Megan O’Byrne, Staff Attorney, LegalHealth