Fordham Law students were recognized by four state senators for their work assisting applicants for New York State’s COVID Rent Relief Program during a Lunar New Year celebration hosted by the senators on February 16, 2021.
Olympia Moy ’21, representing law student and attorney volunteers working with the Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY), joined the virtual event hosted by New York Senators Andrew Gounardes, Brian Kavanagh, Toby Ann Stavisky, and John Liu. Sen. Kavanagh presented the group of volunteers with a certificate of recognition.
Assisting Chinatown Residents Impacted by COVID-19
In the summer of 2020, New York State launched the rent relief program to provide benefits to residents who lost income due to the pandemic. Moy wanted to help low-income Chinatown-area residents, many of whom do not speak English as their first language, apply for the program.
Moy, who grew up in Chinatown and worked there for nearly a decade before law school, says she grew concerned when she met community members who had heard that rent relief was available, but did not know how to apply. Public libraries and assistance offices that would normally provide information and services to the community were closed due to the pandemic.
Moy reached out to Meng Zhang ‘20, whom she had met through Fordham’s “Language for Lawyers” legal Mandarin class. Zhang was involved with AABANY and also had a connection with local radio station AM 1480. Soon, AABANY and a community partner, the Chinatown Community Land Trust, issued a press release promoting a one-day event to help residents fill out their rent assistance forms, and the radio station ran advertising to promote the initiative.
Within days, the event, held on July 26, drew a strong volunteer response from lawyers and law students, including four students from Fordham Law School. Dianna Lam ’22 coordinated a Zoom training for volunteers the day before the event, led by an AABANY attorney. “I think everyone was really surprised by how fast we put it together,” Moy said. Rent assistance applicants—including 125 who pre-registered and many other walk-ins from throughout New York City—lined up on the sidewalk outside the Florentine School, a Chinatown music school Moy’s family operates.
In the winter, when the COVID Rent Relief Program was extended for a second round of applications, in-person assistance events were out of the question due to the second wave of infections in New York. But Fordham students, with their colleague Xinyi Shen, a student at Cardozo School of Law, organized again to get information out to the immigrant community. They translated and published the program information and eligibility requirements in local press and invited applicants to contact AABANY’s remote-access hotline for assistance. Nicholas Loh ‘22 helped lead this two-week hotline effort, connecting over 85 callers with volunteers who spoke Chinese dialects of Mandarin, Cantonese, and Fujianese. The group also teamed up with the organization Good Old Lower East Side to provide assistance in Spanish.
Navigating a Challenging Application Process
Both Moy and Loh said there were significant challenges in helping residents with their application forms. Moy, for example, noted that the assistance provided is only a portion of a recipient’s rent and requires proof of income reduction due to COVID-19.
In addition, many individuals were living in multi-family arrangements, which created a problem for applicants, who were required to document the entire household’s income. For example, when one applicant was told he would need to provide proof of income for his entire household, he left the clinic to go collect his roommates’ pay stubs, including for a coin laundry in the Bronx and a buffet restaurant out of state. “Being able to see everyone’s income in this three-bedroom was sobering,” Moy said.
Another potential applicant was living with an undocumented family member and decided the amount of rent assistance available was not worth the risk of disclosing the family member’s status in light of the Trump administration’s public charge rule.
Loh and Moy had been classmates in an Administrative Law course and noted the differences between their academic study of the subject and seeing the issues in real time. Moy said, “In law school, we talk about ‘line-drawing’ exercises all the time—determining what’s allowed, what’s not, who’s included, and who’s not. Now we were watching the COVID Rent Relief Program and its criteria implemented from scratch. It was a high-speed, fast-forward rollout. It was all playing out before our eyes.”
New York Senate Recognition
The AABANY program came to Sen. Kavanagh’s attention after Moy had initially contacted his office and other elected officials during the summer. “You played a really pivotal role to make sure folks in the Asian-American community have access to these services and these funds,” Sen. Kavanagh noted during the Lunar New Year program.
The Lunar New Year event featured a number of community groups and frontline workers. “It was really gratifying and an honor to be recognized alongside healthcare workers,” Moy said.
“Law students can be passionate about contributing and giving back to their community so I was grateful for the chance to help facilitate this project,” said Loh.
According to Moy, “We students are going to continue to try to respond as long as there are further rollouts and extensions.”