The Cuomo Pandemic Scandal No One Is Talking About

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When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced his plans to resign come August 24, the response from almost everyone was “good riddance.”

The sexual harassment allegations that prompted the governor’s resignation are reason enough to wish Cuomo a speedy goodbye. Many writers, including Reason‘s Liz Wolfe, argued that the governor’s policy early in the pandemic of requiring nursing homes to accept COVID-positive patients—and his attempted cover-up of all the deaths that caused—should have led to his ouster long ago.

Before we say bon voyage to the disgraced governor, it’s worth noting another of his pandemic policies that has proven to be a massive scandal: the disastrous rollout of New York’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP).

The last two COVID relief bills passed by Congress in December 2020 and March 2021 collectively appropriated $46 billion to cover the massive amount of unpaid rent that tenants have accumulated during the pandemic.

By the end of January 2021, the federal government had released close to $25 billion of that money—including about $1.2 billion to New York state’s ERAP. Subsequent federal grants and state money would fund the program to the tune of $2.7 billion, according to City Limits.

And yet by the end of June, New York had, per U.S. Treasury Department data, managed to spend $0 of its rent relief funds. A month later only $1.2 million had gone out the door.

A major reason for the slow dispersal of funds is that the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA)—which is responsible for administering the program—took until June 2021 to start accepting applications. When it did get an online application portal up and running, tenants and landlords were met with crashing websites, and requests for documents they didn’t have.

Applications would take hours to complete, yet the online web portal lacked a feature allowing people to save their progress and try again later. People who called into a hotline to report problems said that staff often had no answers for them.

This disastrous performance has gotten state lawmakers to start scrutinizing a $115 million no-bid contract that OTDA awarded to the Illinois-based company Guidehouse to set up ERAP.

Normally state contracts over $50,000 would have to be approved by the state comptroller, but the since-expired emergency declared by Cuomo in response to COVID-19 suspended those rules.

Expediting the ability of state agencies to sign contracts is a standard feature of emergency orders signed by governors during the pandemic. Nevertheless, the Associated Press reported in July that Guidehouse hired a Cuomo adviser shortly after winning its state contract, which has raised subsequent ethics questions.

There also doesn’t seem to have been much back-and-forth between state officials and beneficiaries on the design of New York’s ERAP. Nor has Cuomo himself appeared all that interested in the program’s problems.

Jay Martin, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, a small landlord association, told Reason back in June that had state officials worked with property owners when setting up their ERAP system, a lot of these issues could have been avoided. Instead, he says, landlords were left out of the loop.

OTDA Commissioner Michael Hein told state lawmakers in a committee hearing on Tuesday that he’s had no conversations with Cuomo about the ERAP program, reports the New York Post.

To be sure, most state governments have done a pretty poor job of getting their rent relief programs off the ground. (The speed at which places like Virginia and Texas have managed to disperse funds shows that success wasn’t impossible.)

Nevertheless, New York has earned the distinction of being the slowest. As of Monday, the state has spent $100 million on rent relief, or about 4 percent of total ERAP funds.

Being an effective writer of checks is not necessarily what libertarians want in an ideal governor. Nevertheless, rent relief is in large part meant to compensate landlords who have been prevented, partially by Cuomo’s executive orders, from evicting nonpaying tenants. The failure to spend rent relief funds has also fueled demands to keep eviction moratoriums at the state and federal levels in place.

The governor’s seeming lack of interest in making the program work, not to mention his administration’s poor selection of vendors, mean he deserves the lion’s share of the blame.


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