Onondaga County’s Rent Relief Eases Burden for Landlords and Tenants

Those in need encouraged to apply soon, before funds run out

By Eddie Velazquez

Charles Marsh, who manages a property on West Brighton Avenue understands precarity.

“He lost his job and has been kind of depressed,” said Marsh of the tenant who rents his South Side property and was one of many nationwide who lost their job at the height of the pandemic in 2020. “I have been letting him go on (without paying rent). The thing about him is that he is trying.”

Marsh, a retired member of the U.S. Armed Forces, compares the tenant’s situation to what he experienced in his youth.

“When I first started off, I was in a very similar situation,” he said. “I was only making so much money. I had to take extra jobs, but my landlord tried to work with me and my family.”

The tenant living on Brighton has a $16,000 rent backlog, according to Marsh, who stressed how important it is for him to pay it forward.

“Because (our landlord helped us), I am just going to try and pass it on,” he continued. “Somebody helped me. I appreciated it, and now I am just trying to help this tenant out.”

Marsh can also help by completing an application with his tenant for Onondaga County’s rent relief program, a pool of funds to the tune of $29 million approved by federal legislators in order to help tenants and landlords shore up any backlogged rent that has gone unpaid due to the pandemic.

The program has already started to process payments to landlords, according to Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon, who noted at a press event last week the county is one of seven communities across New York to fast track sending out rent relief by opting out of the state’s aid disbursement program. 

County Executive Ryan McMahon was joined by Senate Republican Leader Robert Ortt and Assembly Republican Leader Will Barclay May 18 to discuss the county’s rent relief delivery effort. | Eddie Velazquez, Staff Photographer

“The state wanted us to wire our federal funds to them and enter their program. Some counties did that. We did not, and we are getting money out the door, and they are not,” said McMahon, noting the county hopes to be done processing the first round of payments before Memorial Day.

So far, McMahon said, the county has received 3,600 requests since it opened up the online application process in mid April. The county executive added “mom and pop” landlords are the main target when sending out these aid payments.

“This is what they do. This is how they pay their bills. This is how they take care of their families, and it has been tough,” McMahon said.

In order to apply, tenants must show a loss of income due to COVID-19, demonstrate a risk of homelessness and their income must be at or below 80 percent of the area’s median household income, according to the program’s guidelines. In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau recorded the median household income per year in Onondaga County at $61,359, which would require tenants to earn $49,087 or less in order to qualify for the program.

For fair housing advocates, the rent relief fund signifies a win for tenants even if there is still work to be done.

“I think the rent relief fund is first and foremost a win for tenants,” said Stephanie Kenific, a community organizer with the Syracuse Eviction Defense Coalition and a member of Syracuse’s Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL). “The government understood that something needed to be done, and the direct actions taken on eviction defense in Rochester put the right amount of pressure on Albany to do the right thing.”

Kenific noted the application lacks accessibility for tenants who may not be able to access the internet. As it stands, the county has partnered with 36 local organizations in order to help tenants fill out the application. As part of their canvassing efforts, the Syracuse Defense Coalition, which is comprised of members from the Syracuse Tenants Union and the local PSL and Democratic Socialists of America chapters, continues to help tenants fill out applications before the eviction moratorium expires on Aug. 31.

“The effort to help people apply is not centralized; the understanding is that the nonprofits will just take care of it,” she said. “And of course, there’s not enough money to fully address the problem.”

Kenific noted that while landlords and tenants together must apply for the program, she does not believe this process helps strengthen those relationships.

“I mean there are small-time landlords who have positive relationships with their tenants, but those are few and far between,” she said. “Tenant-landlord relationships have always been one of a power imbalance, and that imbalance is inherent in the relationship. You can’t have a  positive relationship with someone you’re trying to make a profit off of.”

Eddie Velazquez is a freelance reporter in Central New York. You can share news tips with him at edvel37@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @ezvelazquez

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