By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Local elected officials have started holding workshops to enroll residents in Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) and Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE) programs since a report came out earlier this year noting that less than half of eligible tenants are receiving the benefits they are entitled to.
State Senator Brad Hoylman, along with State Senator Daniel Squadron, Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Congresswomen Carolyn Maloney and Nydia Velazquez, most recently hosted an event at 535 East Fifth Street on October 23 to encourage eligible seniors and disabled residents to sign up for the program that would freeze their rent, and the workshop was attended by about 30 tenants.
SCRIE and DRIE, collectively known as the New York City Rent Freeze Program, is available to seniors over age 62 and tenants with disabilities. Eligible tenants receive rent increase exemptions through a property tax credit and the income threshold increased to $50,000, from the previous limit of $29,000, earlier this year.
Attorneys from Legal Aid and legal firm Skadden Arps were available at the workshop to help residents complete their paperwork but Senator Hoylman noted that filing for the benefits doesn’t necessarily require a fine-tuned legal mind.
“A big part of it is education,” he said. “A number of people who are eligible just don’t know that it’s available, and because it’s pegged to income, you have to re-enroll every year.”
Senator Hoylman cited the low enrollment specifically in Stuyvesant Town as one of the motivating factors for holding the workshops. The report from the Department of Finance found that Stuy Town was one of the most underenrolled neighborhoods in the city, with only 1,317 out of 5,144 eligible residents enrolled in the program, meaning that only 25 percent of eligible seniors and tenants with disabilities are receiving benefits.
Liliana Vaamonde, Director of Training for the Civil Practice with Legal Aid, also noted that education is an important component for enrolling residents in the program, mainly because of the recent changes in the income limit.
“There was a big change that happened last year with the income level so a whole new, large group of people are now eligible,” she said. “The city has been making an effort to do outreach at senior centers and elsewhere so it’s going to take time to inform everyone about the increase.”
Vaamonde added that there are a few misconceptions about the program that residents have at the workshops as well, relating to eligibility and the income level. She clarified that some tenants are confused about why they are not eligible even though their own income is below the $50,000 threshold.
“It’s about the household and not their individual income, so even if a primary tenant has an income below $50,000, other members of the household might bump it up too high,” she said.
She also clarified that the program is only available to tenants who live in rent-regulated housing and they often get questions about eligibility from residents in public housing or privately owned buildings who do meet the income requirements.
“This is all contingent on the fact that they have rent stabilized housing,” Vaamonde said.
Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side, has been doing her part to increase education about the program, with legislation that requires landlords to notify tenants about programs that would freeze their rents. Assemblymember Rosenthal announced this past Monday that the bill had been signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo.