SCRIE and roommates -- don't let the forms fool you!

October 16, 2014

Dear Friends,

First of all, I want to apologize for not having posted in a while.  Vanessa Diaz, the Elderly Project’s new Legal Assistant, and I have been busy with a number of things, including the task of learning to use VOLS’s brand-new case management system.  Now that we’re up to speed with the new system, I once again will have the time to send you these periodic updates on subjects that I hope are of interest to you.

Before I get to today’s topic, I want to point out a terrific feature of our new case-management system that I asked the designer to include, which is our ability, for each senior we see at our monthly legal clinics, to query the website of the New York State Comptroller’s Office to ask whether the senior has a “lost property” claim – that is, whether the State is holding some of the senior’s lost money.  With our new notebook computer and hotspot, we will be able to run these queries during our clinic appearances and, if the senior wishes, submit a secure claim on the senior’s behalf right then and there.  When I worked for The Legal Aid Society, the largest amount of money that I helped a client obtain this way was about $500 – and I am determined to break that record!

But now to the main purpose of today’s e-mail, which is to discuss how the Department of Finance treats the income of roommates when determining SCRIE eligibility.  As you will see, the language of the SCRIE application and renewal forms will lead you in exactly the wrong direction.

A roommate’s full income is not counted in SCRIE determinations

The way that the Department of Finance (the “DOF”) treats the income of roommates, or boarders, is one of the more commonly misunderstood aspects of the SCRIE program.  As you know, one of the eligibility requirements of the SCRIE program is a household income of $50,000 or less – with the emphasis on household.  If a tenant rents out a room to a roommate – note that a relative cannot be considered a roommate – then that roommate’s income is not counted by the DOF toward the $50,000 limit, because by definition a roommate is not part of one’s household.  Instead, the DOF counts only the amount of money contributed by the roommate to the tenant toward the rent.  Example: If a roommate makes $150,000 per year as a doctor but contributes only $12,000 per year toward the rent, then the DOF will count only that $12,000 as income to the tenant.

Unfortunately, you would never know any of this by looking at the DOF’s SCRIE forms.  In the initial application form, available here, the DOF asks for the income of all “household” members, but nowhere is “household” defined.  To make matters more confusing, the form also asks for the income of “co-tenants”.  Only at the end of the form, where one is invited to submit a “Signed letter from boarder stating rental payments”, might you infer that the income of a boarder – or roommate – does not count except to the extent that it is paid to the SCRIE recipient toward the rent.

Worse still is the SCRIE renewal form, available here, which asks whether “anyone else” lives with the tenant, in which case the form demands that person’s name, Social Security number, income amount, and tax return.  But this information is not required with respect to boarders/roommates!

Don’t believe me? Check out page 2 of the DOF’s own “Guide to the SCRIE Program and DRIE Program,” available here.

So, given that the forms clearly ask for information that is not required, how the heck is one supposed to fill them out? My advice is to include a cover letter with the form, in which you explain that there is a roommate in the apartment.  The letter should note the name of the roommate and the amount that the roommate pays toward the rent; and don’t forget to include a letter signed by the roommate in which he or she indicates the amount paid each month – but see below.

The DOF does not count money paid by a roommate toward non-rent expenses

Recently I contacted Sara Meyers, Assistant Commissioner of Tax and Parking Operations, and asked her the following question:“Would DOF impute as income to a tenant all payments made by a boarder toward any household expenses, or will DOF consider only the portion paid toward rent?”

After asking her staff to research the question, Ms. Meyers responded (somewhat to my surprise) as follows:

“The only inclusion of the boarder would be the payment in rent. SCRIE will not take into account the payments made by the boarder towards household expenses.

This is great news.  It means that if a roommate pays, say, $100 per month to a tenant toward utilities and cable, DOF will not consider any of this money to be income to the tenant.  $100 per month is not a great sum of money, but it could spell the difference between eligibility and denial in close cases.   So my advice to SCRIE recipients with roommates is: If your roommate pays you money toward anything other than rent, ask the roommate to pay you with a separate check that’s earmarked for that purpose.

That’s it for now.  But stay tuned for more updates about SCRIE and other subjects of interest to advocates for seniors.

All the best,

Alex