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Just Thoughts is the blog of the Empire Justice Center, New York’s statewide, multi-issue, multi-strategy public interest law firm focused on changing the “systems” within which poor and low income families live. Here staff and guest authors will share stories, announcements and perspectives on timely issues related to our work.    



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Sleeping Bags on Sidewalks

Issue Area: Consumer

I live around the corner from St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center in Rochester, New York, which provides free breakfasts to people that need one in my neighborhood.  So many mornings, there are so many people waiting for breakfast, that I literally walk around them sleeping on the sidewalk, waiting for the doors to open.  This time of year, these folks are more often than not lying directly on the sidewalk or in the doorway with a blanket or sleeping bag over them, trying to find some kind of warmth.

This morning, there was a woman younger than me with four small children under one sleeping bag on the sidewalk.  One of the children woke as I walked by, and in her tiny voice asked me if breakfast was ready.  It made me pause and wonder how this family had come to be on this sidewalk on this morning.

At Empire Justice Center, I work in the Consumer Finance and Housing Unit, helping local families avoid foreclosure.  My work day is full of bank statements, paystubs, legal motions, court filings and endless bank applications - doing everything I can to keep people in their homes.  I spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about principal reductions, mortgage servicing violations, urban blight and opposing counsel. 

This morning, along with the bank statements and paystubs, I will be thinking about sleeping bags on sidewalks.

Of course I have no idea if that little girl and her family once had a house that was lost to foreclosure - there are countless paths that could have led them to that sidewalk on South Avenue.  In our busy jobs, it’s easy to become immune to the numbers and to the stories behind the problems that we’re trying to solve. 

Sometimes it’s just too easy to pass by the sleeping bags on the sidewalks, and the tiny voices and puffy eyes of small children.  But I think in the days ahead, I might do my job better if I keep this morning’s walk to work in mind.









New York State Legislature Extends Settlement Conferences for Five Years

Issue Area: Consumer

The New York State Legislature last week passed crucial legislation that serves to assist homeowners facing foreclosure.  One piece of the legislation is that mandatory foreclosure settlement conferences, set to expire in early 2015, have been extended for five more years.

A settlement conference occurs in court, where the homeowner or an advocate on their behalf meets with the lawyer representing the mortgage servicer.  The statutory purpose of the conferences is to see if a mutually agreeable resolution can be reached, with both sides being obligated to negotiate in good faith, in order to avoid loss of the home.  In most cases, avoiding foreclosure entails some form of modification of the original mortgage.  In practical terms, the homeowner needs to show that they can afford the modified mortgage payments.  The servicer, in turn, is obligated to review the homeowner’s application to determine if they qualify for any modification or repayment options.  While a homeowner is in the settlement conference process, the servicer is not allowed to move forward with the foreclosure.

In the application process, the homeowner’s financial situation is established largely by submitting documents to the servicer or their representative.  While this may sound very simple, in fact the process is often very confusing and frustrating.  Before the establishment of the mandatory settlement conferences in New York’s judicial foreclosure process in 2010, the homeowner dealt directly with the servicer with no intervening “umpire,” so to speak.  There were lots of problems, including homeowners submitting documents that were often lost or not reviewed in a timely manner, the same documents being requested multiple times, or requests were made for documents that did not exist.  The homeowner had little or no recourse to counter the demands of the servicer.  Once the settlement conference was introduced, judicial oversight was added to the mix.  Now the mortgage servicer had an entity to answer to, and there exists the possibility of real world negative consequences if the homeowner is not being treated fairly.  The servicer can be fined, or the foreclosure suit can be dismissed.  At the same time, if the homeowner does not meet their obligations, the servicer is allowed to move ahead with the foreclosure process.

While the loan modification application process in the settlement conference era is far from perfect, it is undeniably more efficient and fair than the pre-conference process, which has been likened to the "Wild Wild West."  Here at Empire Justice Center, we have contact with many homeowners in foreclosure, and their experiences are very consistent.  The settlement conference mitigates the fear, confusion and frustration of the application process.  In the words of one of our clients, “Before appearing in front of the judge, dealing with the bank was like yelling at a brick wall.”

The establishment of the settlement conference has led to thousands of New Yorkers saving their homes.  In addition, they have instilled fairness into the system by establishing a consumer-friendly model for homeowners to defend themselves against foreclosure.  Prior to the conferences, the Office of Court Administration (OCA) estimated that over ninety percent of foreclosure cases ended in a default judgment against the homeowner – meaning the vast majority of homeowners had no meaningful way to either work with their servicer or to defend themselves in the legal proceeding.  In the first full year of the conferences, OCA reported that homeowners appeared in over ninety percent of the first conferences scheduled.  About one-third of New York’s civil docket is foreclosure cases, and the data available tells us that the mortgage crisis in New York is far from over, with record numbers of foreclosures still to come.  The mandatory foreclosure settlement conference will be a critical factor in helping as many New Yorkers save their homes as possible.



Tags: foreclosure | settlement conference | mortgage





Empire Justice Center to “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes”

Issue Area: Domestic Violence

On Saturday, October 5, 2013, Alternatives for Battered Women, Monroe County’s licensed domestic violence organization, will hold its annual “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” event at Ontario Beach Park.  The Rochester office of Empire Justice Center is so proud to have a team walking this year.  This major event by Alternatives for Battered Women is their kickoff event for Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  The Walk raises funds to support their work with victims of domestic violence, as well as awareness of the topic. “Walk a Mile” was founded by a man, and stands as a call to action for all men to stop violence against women-and all victims.  The Walk is an international event, and for over a decade has had tens of thousands of participants and raised millions of dollars for local rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, as well as education and prevention programs.  To learn more about the local event, click here.  For more information on the history and mission of the Walk, click here.

 

Throughout the year, Empire Justice Center works hard to address domestic violence issues from a variety of angles.  From providing training and support to domestic violence organizations, legal advocates, and others to advocating for change to both legislation and public policy, we strive toward the goal of making the lives of victims of domestic violence, and all New Yorkers, better.  At the Walk, we’ll do this good work in stilettos—or sneakers!

 

Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior that is intentionally used by the abusive person to gain or maintain power and control over their intimate partner.  Coercive tactics can include physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, and economic abuse or threats.  Abusive conduct injures, humiliates, frightens, isolates, threatens, intimidates or manipulates its intended target. Where there are children in a home infected by domestic violence, they may also suffer consequences as witnesses or direct victims of abuse.  Domestic violence can happen in new, dating relationships, as well occur over time in more long-term partnerships without regard to gender, sexual orientation, age, race, faith community, and socio-economic status.  To learn more about domestic violence, visit the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence website.      

 

To learn how to create a local Walk a Mile team of your own, click here.  Please join Empire Justice Center in our support of this most worthy of causes--whether you do it with your feet or your pocketbook!  We also encourage everyone to participate in or host a domestic violence awareness event in their community in the month of October.  Together we can stop abuse.  



Tags: Empire Justice | Domestic Violence | Alternatives for Battered Women





Empire Justice Center Plays an active role in training advocates across New York on foreclosure prevention


On May 30, 2013, the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced an extension of the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), which was set to expire on December 31, 2013.The program has now been extended through December 31, 2015. In doing so, the hope is that the millions of homeowners who are still struggling and hoping to avoid foreclosure will be able to take advantage of the benefits afforded by HAMP.

 

In March 2009, the Treasury Department and Obama Administration announced the launch of its Making Home Affordable (MHA) Program.  HAMP, part of the MHA Program, was, designed to enable homeowners to modify their mortgages in order to prevent foreclosure.  HAMP also created standards for the mortgage servicing industry, which before that time varied widely amongst mortgage servicers.  Homeowners whose loans are owned or guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac are eligible.  Additionally, many servicers of loans not owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac also participate in HAMP. 

 

Although MHA, and specifically HAMP, have helped many homeowners in the loan modification process, the process itself can be an intimidating and daunting one.  As part of Empire Justice Center’s mission in educating both the public and fellow advocates in matters of assisting the disenfranchised, we have taken an active role in educating both attorneys and housing counselors on the MHA Programs, including HAMP.  Empire Justice Center conducted two day trainings in foreclosure prevention for both attorneys and housing counselors in April in Syracuse and earlier this month on Long Island.  A good portion of these trainings involved navigating the HAMP process.  In addition, Empire Justice Center continues to provide two webinars a month related to relevant foreclosure issues, including several that relate directly to MHA and HAMP.  Among the Empire Justice Center attorneys presenting at these trainings and webinars are Kevin Purcell, Maria DeGennaro, and Rebecca Case Caico.

 

The MHA Program and HAMP continue to help homeowners stay out of foreclosure, and Empire Justice Center will continue to educate people across New York State on how to best utilize these programs.

 

To learn more about the programs, homeowners can visit www.MakingHomeAffordable.gov.   To learn more Empire Justice Center’s trainings and webinars, and who is eligible, attorneys and housing counselors can email amaroselli@empirejustice.org.



Tags: Frannie Mae | Freddie Mac | Foreclosure | Loan Modification | Training