Community Service Society of New York
Testimony before New York City Council Committees on Aging and Finance
December 9, 2015
Good afternoon Chairperson Chin, Chairperson Ferreras-Copeland, and members of the NYC Council Committee on Aging and the Committee on Finance. My name is Rebecca Haase and I am the Program Director of the Community Service Society’s (CSS) Financial Advocacy Program. Thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony on the City’s efforts to conduct outreach and increase enrollment for the NYC Rent Freeze Program.
CSS is a 170 year-old organization that seeks to address the root causes of economic disparity. Our mission is to promote policies and create programs that advance the economic security of low- and moderate-income New Yorkers. CSS has been a leader in providing public benefit counseling to seniors and individuals with low-incomes on a full range of benefits including Medicaid, Medicare, SNAP, SSI, SSDI, Cash Assistance, Access-a-Ride, HEAP, SCRIE, DRIE and many others since 1984.
Through the Financial Advocacy Program, we train older adult volunteers to provide public benefit counseling and financial coaching. The program places volunteers in agencies throughout NYC where they work one-on-one with clients in senior centers, work-force development agencies, hospitals and other community-based organizations. The project has 90 volunteers who assist approximately 5,000 new clients each year. This year, we received a grant from The New York Community Trust to conduct outreach specifically on SCRIE and DRIE (now known as the NYC Rent Freeze Program) through our Rent Freeze Outreach Project. The project’s goal is to increase enrollment among the growing population of individuals who qualify for the benefit.
The Rent Freeze Outreach Project has a unique approach as its primary goal is application assistance. Our outreach is focused on screening potential applicants for eligibility and helping them fill out applications for the program. We strive to educate potential applicants about the eligibility criteria and documents needed to apply before they attend one of our outreach events. Potential applicants come prepared, for the most part, with the proper documentation. This structure enables us to fully assist the applicant with the application process. While we do participate in some events where the focus is giving out information, we feel our time is better spent on providing application assistance. We conduct events in community centers, senior centers, libraries, religious institutions, as well as other non-profit organizations.
Our project works closely with and in support of both the Department of Finance (DOF) and Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD). We have met with both city agencies to review eligibility rules and the application process. We have conducted several outreach events in partnership with the Department of Finance. In addition, HPD keeps us updated on the Mitchell-Lama buildings that are having an increase. This allows us to assist seniors in those buildings with applications. We are currently working with Franklin Plaza, a Mitchell-Lama building in the East Harlem area, as they are about to have an increase next year.
We want to thank the DOF for their outreach efforts. They have created a useful website and an excellent guide which is written in an easy to understand format. The name change and new attractive materials have made a difference. The SCRIE Ombudsman, Weekly Tenant and Applicant Reports, SCRIE calculator and forms accessible online have made getting help and information easier. We use their materials daily in our work with clients.
We have also met with and work with various elected officials on joint events or attended events they are holding. In addition, we worked with AARP on a targeted postcard mailing to educate AARP members about the NYC Rent Freeze Program. AARP members were invited to attend one of three outreach events we held in areas of low-enrollment in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Through these efforts we have received over 200 phone calls.
In a recent report conducted by the Department of Finance there are 94,000 potential applicants not enrolled in the NYC Rent Freeze Program. Based on our outreach experience, we feel that to reach this eligible population there are many challenges that need to be overcome.
One of the main challenges has to do with issues related to housing concerns and issues with landlords. Potential applicants are often worried about how applying for SCRIE/DRIE will affect their relationship with their landlord. Some applicants do not have their prior lease or they have not received the current lease signed by the landlord both of which are needed for the initial application. All of these issues and concerns preclude eligible people from applying. If landlords are required to share information about the Rent Freeze Program to all their tenants once a year this would help spread the word to the right audience and help alleviate the fear people have of upsetting their landlord. The message of the program would be coming from the landlord and all New Yorkers in rent regulated apartments would be familiar with the program.
Another challenge is getting the message out on a larger scale to those who may be unfamiliar with the program. We feel this could only be accomplished through working with other government agencies and institutions, and through a larger scale marketing campaign. If seniors hear the message from trusted institutions or through NYC sponsored media campaign they would feel that they are entitled to the program and less fearful of applying. In addition, the work of community based organizations who have ties with the community and seniors is one of the best ways to assist seniors and conduct outreach.
Therefore, CSS supports the City Council in your effort to pass legislation that would increase outreach and enrollment in this valuable program for seniors and people with disabilities.
- Distribute NYC Rent Freeze Program information and eligibility guidelines to all New Yorkers living in rent regulated buildings either through landlords or agencies such as Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR).
- Require that NYC employers share information on the NYC Rent Freeze Program with their retirees through their Human Resources (HR) Departments.
- Work with the local Social Security Administration offices on distributing information on the program to applicants for retirement and disability benefits.
- Work closely with non-profits that are doing outreach on the Rent Freeze Program to find out what works best and to develop best practices in assisting seniors and doing outreach. Invest City resources in programs like the CSS Rent Freeze Outreach Project and other similar programs which are solely dedicated to finding and assisting potentially eligible seniors.
- Conduct a large-scale media campaign with information posted in subways, on buses and through television advertisements
Thank you for the opportunity to present testimony before these Committees.
Program Director, Financial Advocacy Program
Community Service Society of New York