Before the pandemic, Joseph Pagano whipped up culinary treats in his job as a chef for a cruise company that entertains travelers on trips around Manhattan.
But when the pandemic hit, the cruises ended, and so did his employment.
He received unemployment benefits, but then he hurt his back and ended up on disability.
“I never made it back to the boat,” Pagano said.
He said he struggled to pay the monthly rent on his one-bedroom apartment in Jersey City, where he has lived for 26 years.
But then the state offered him a lifeline. New Jersey announced financial assistance to renters using a combination of state and federal funds,
Pagano qualified and he was approved on Nov. 13, 2021.
He would receive two months of back rent and three months of future rent. The payments would be made directly to his landlord.
The first payment of $ 1,744 to cover back rent for October and November was received pretty quickly, but by mid-December, the second payment for three months of rent was nowhere in sight, he said.
Pagano said he sent an email to the program, run by the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), on Dec. 17. He did not receive a response, so he called the agency.
“I was told that they would investigate but that it could take 30 to 60 days to get a conclusion as to what happened to the payment,” Pagano said. “I found this very odd at the time but I chose to accept what I was told.”
When it hit the 60-day mark, he called again.
“I was told by that operator that it could take up to 90 days for the investigation to be concluded,” Pagano said.
He said he called again at the 90-day mark. By then, he was behind on rent for December, January and February – the payments that would have been covered by the program.
“I was told that I just had to be patient because these things take time,” he said. “After letting them know I had already been waiting 90 days and asking how long it really takes, I was once again told that these things take time and to just be patient.”
The representative escalated the case, Pagano said.
In early May, he received a call from a representative who said he had good news.
“He had done a complete check on my account and that he could now say with certainty that there was no fraud or anything of such stopping my claim,” Pagano said, adding that none of the other representatives said anything about fraud.
The representative said he would forward the claim to the payment division, but weeks later, no payment was made.
Pagano said his landlord has been reasonable because he knows Pagano was approved and has been trying diligently to get the payments.
“I am totally and completely exasperated over the situation and can not comprehend why it is impossible for these agents to just get on a simple phone call to get this all straightened out,” he said, noting it’s now been more than six months since he was approved for the program. “It almost feels like they just hope that I will get tired of pursuing this and go away.”
He asked Bamboozled for help.
WHERE IS THE MONEY?
Despite Pagano’s problem, COVID rental assistance programs in New Jersey have been largely successful, according to tenant advocates and renters. Their one complaint is that more funding is needed to help additional renters.
Indeed, there are 122,000 families on the waiting list for assistance, said Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Ryan. They may be eligible for help should the federal government or the state add more money to the programs.
There were several phases of the federal COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which paid out more than $ 750 million to nearly 90,000 families. As part of that, the state received a $ 87 million bonus above its initial funding, reallocated by the US Treasury from states that did not use all the money they were given for the programs.
In fact, New Jersey was one of only six states that paid out all the money from the different phases of the program.
In addition to those funds, some counties and cities with more than 200,000 residents received another $ 430 million directly from the feds, helping tens of thousands more renters.
Community Affairs also distributed $ 500 million to nearly 29,000 families through the state’s Eviction Prevention Program (EPP), which covers rent for up to 24 months starting in January 2022.
Only a small number of fraud cases have been detected, the agency said.
DCA has substantiated 158 cases of fraud to date. Please note that this reflects substantiated cases and not applications that were withdrawn or not completed due to DCA requirements in place, ”spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said.
The same day Bamboozled asked Community Affairs to look at Pagano’s case, he got a call from the agency, saying it was looking at his case.
Soon after, he learned the money was on the way.
“Unfortunately, a staff person did not use the correct procedure to trace a check when notified that a check had not arrived,” Ryan said. “Staff have been counseled and retrained regarding this error.”
Community Affairs said it does not have an estimate of how many people had mishaps like Pagano’s, but it did confirm the check for the three months of rent was mailed after our inquiries.
You can learn more about getting on the waiting list for the programs on the Community Affairs website.
You can also apply to get help with your utility bills through June 30. Visit energyassistance.nj.gov or get help from an authorized local community action agency or community-based organization.
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Karin Price Mueller may be reached at KPriceMueller@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @KPMueller.