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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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When it Comes to Foreclosures, the FHFA Should Lay Blame Where it Belongs - On Mortgage Servicers, Not State Consumer Protection Laws

Issue Area: Consumer

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s overseer, wrongly, and egregiously is attacking state consumer protection laws.  The Agency published a proposal [http://www.fhfa.gov/webfiles/24525/NoticeStateLevelGfees_to_Fed_RegFINAL.pdf] in September with a comment period that ended this past Monday (Nov. 26th), in which Acting Director Edward DeMarco blames consumer protections for long delays in the foreclosure process in five states:  New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and Florida.  The penalty?  A substantial charge to future borrowers in those states. In NY, that fee would be $2,520 on a $200,000 loan.  

 

The proposal is no veiled attack on states’ rights.  FHFA boldly claims, "If those states were to adjust their laws and requirements sufficiently to move their foreclosure timelines and costs more in line with the national average, the state-level, risk-based fees imposed under the planned approach would be lowered or eliminated." And a threat to states which may be thinking about implementing consumer protections:  “The agency may include the impact of newly-enacted laws if they clearly affect foreclosure timelines or costs, where such costs may be reasonably estimated based on relevant experience.” 

 

Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) submitted a comment in strong opposition to the proposal and has collected at least 16 letters on its website from others including the New York, Connecticut and Illinois Attorneys General, 18 US Senators and House members from NY, a Connecticut congressional delegation, NYS Assemblywomen Helene Weinstein and Annette Robinson, New Yorkers for Responsible Lending (NYRL), the Brennan Center, three professors and more.  The letters can be found here. [ http://ourfinancialsecurity.org/letters-arguing-against-fhfa-g-fee-plan/].].

 

What are the consumer protections at issue?  In NY, they include a notice sent 90 days prior to a filing with referrals to reputable non-profit housing counseling agencies in the borrower’s area, mandatory settlement conferences to see if the home can be saved, and a requirement that lawyers affirm that their foreclosure pleadings are accurate.  It would be tough to argue that any of these protections are over the top.  Actually, they set a pretty basic standard which should exist in all states. 

 

As simple as these requirements are, however, mortgage servicers just can’t comply with them – that is what is causing the long delays.  First is their failure to file the required paperwork and attorney affirmation with the court to move the case into the settlement conference process.  Thousands of foreclosure cases have been initiated and are just sitting in what has become known as our “shadow docket” with no forward movement, some for upwards of two years. 

 

The delays do not end there.  Once a case reaches the settlement conference process, it is the norm for the servicer’s representative to appear without authority to settle the case, or with any real knowledge of the status of the loss mitigation application made by the homeowner.  This ill-preparedness, on top of the general failure of servicers to adhere to HAMP (the Home Affordable Modification Program) or other guidelines for making determinations, typically means that 4 to 8 conferences have to be held until a breaking point is reached and the servicer has to make a determination.  And even in cases which have moved out of the settlement conference process and are supposed to go forward with litigation, advocates across the state report that the big servicers are not seeking judgments in too many cases. 

 

FHFA misses the boat in their cost calculation of defaults in states with longer timelines, as well.  First, there is no consideration for the number of foreclosures.  A state with a lower foreclosure rate but a longer time frame, such as NY, is costlier according to FHFA than a state such as Arizona or Nevada which have huge volumes but shorter timelines.  More so, though, the equation completely fails to factor in costs saved as a result of consumer protections.  There is no question that the settlement conferences in NY mean more people are getting loan modifications and staying in their homes.  While estimates vary regarding the “cost” of a foreclosure (I’ve seen estimates from $40,000 to over $100,000), preserving homeownership is generally a cost-saving measure for investors in many respects.   

 

At the very least, FHFA’s imposition of new costs on future borrowers is unfair to prospective borrowers who had nothing to do with driving the reckless lending frenzy of the subprime era, nor the resulting financial crisis.  The proposal also will likely slow the already too-slow U.S. housing recovery by increasing the cost of lending in a state like Florida, which, frankly, needs all the help it can get.  Not that coastal communities in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are faring too well lately.  If enacted, this proposal would be the proverbial, “kicking someone when they’re down.”  The comments collected by AFR urge the FHFA to abandon the proposal.  



Tags: FHFA | Foreclosure | Edward DeMarco | Mortgage Services





SNAP Disaster Update: D-SNAP Approved for Westchester County!

Issue Area: Public Benefits

The USDA has approved a disaster supplemental nutrition assistance program (D-SNAP) for Westchester County low income residents who were severely impacted by Hurricane Sandy.  Westchester is the first county to seek D-SNAP for struggling residents.

Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino made the announcement on Wednesday, November 14th.

Who is eligible?  Households who would not normally qualify for SNAP may be eligible for D-SNAP if they lived in Westchester County on October 27th and suffered disaster related damage, material losses or loss of income due to Hurricane Sandy.  Food loss alone is not an allowable qualifying circumstance.  Current SNAP recipients in Westchester County are not eligible to apply for D-SNAP, but will have their November monthly benefit automatically supplemented up to the D-SNAP benefit level (the maximum monthly allotment).  

How and When to Apply:  D-SNAP will begin on Friday, November 16th, and run until Friday, November 23rd.  D-SNAP applications can be filed at the local social services district offices in Yonkers, Mount Vernon, White Plains and Peekskill during normal business hours (Monday through Friday, excluding Thanksgiving Day), as well as at the Disaster Recovery Center in White Plains every day except Thanksgiving from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The USDA’s D-SNAP approval letter to OTDA on Tuesday, November 13th, indicated that Westchester was the only county who had, to date, requested permission to operate a D-SNAP. 

Kudos to Westchester County for taking the lead in New York State by ensuring that needy disaster victims have access to food assistance while they are putting their lives back in order.  D-SNAP should also help ease some of the burden on the emergency food system (food pantries and soup kitchens) and will help pump additional SNAP dollars (100% federally funded) into local food retailers in Westchester County. 

Let’s hope that public officials in other disaster designated counties follow Westchester’s lead and make sure that some of their most vulnerable residents recovering from Hurricane Sandy have access to federal D-SNAP benefits!

For more information about D-SNAP, please contact Cathy Roberts at croberts@empirejustice.org or (518) 462-6831 x 112.



Tags: SNAP | Food Stamps | Sandy | USDA | Westchester | County Executive Astorino





Checking in after Sandy- New Developments

Issue Area: Public Benefits

USDA approves waiver to help SNAP recipients devastated by Hurricane Sandy


Between Friday afternoon, November 2nd, and Sunday evening, November 4th, the Governor’s office announced that:

  1. Individual SNAP recipients have an extended period of time to request replacement benefits.  Instead of 10 days, they now have 30 days.
  2. SNAP recipients living in the hardest hit areas of the state will automatically get a replacement benefit without having to request it.  The replacement benefit amount will be 50% of the household’s normal monthly benefit.   The areas include Nassau, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Suffolk, Sullivan and Westchester counties; all of Staten Island, and other sections of New York City.  Additional zip codes in New York City that experienced extended power loss may be added as more details about the number of households affected becomes available
  3. SNAP recipients in New York City and Nassau, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Suffolk, Sullivan and Westchester counties can use their benefits to purchase hot and prepared foods at EBT retailers until November 30th


OTDA issued a Q&A to help educate clients about these developments.



Tags: hurricane sandy | superstorm sandy | snap | food stamps | d-snap | usda





Checking in after Hurricane Sandy

Issue Area: Public Benefits

Feeding the hungry after Hurricane Sandy – the role of SNAP

Day 4 after Hurricane Sandy.  So many of our relatives, friends and colleagues along the tri-state coastal area are facing hardship … some still lacking basic necessities like water and food.    And many of our community partners in NYC, Long Island and the Hudson Valley region have been without power, internet or phone service.

We at Empire Justice are collaborating with our partners during the post-Sandy relief efforts, to help connect disaster victims, and agencies working with them, with legal resources to assist them during their recovery. 

Please check our webpage frequently for updates.

Today we wanted to address the role of SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) in meeting the needs of disaster victims. 


What’s in place right now


Current SNAP recipients who have experienced food loss or spoilage due to the disaster can request a replacement SNAP benefit through their local department of social services, through regular replacement procedures. 
 
Our friends at Hunger Solutions NY have issued a great memo and flyer explaining the replacement SNAP benefit process, and they’ve posted the replacement benefits request form on their website. 

You can also get the replacement request form in 7 languages on OTDA’s website.  Outside of New York City, the completed form should be sent to the local SNAP office.  In New York City, please fax it to 917-639-1111 (this is a dedicated fax line); HRA has asked that requesters include their address, SSN and contact phone number on the form.

OTDA has reminded districts that emergency temporary assistance (”emergency assistance”) is available to meet the emergency food needs of households who aren’t eligible for SNAP replacement but in immediate need.  The usual income limits for emergency assistance do not apply for occurrences related to a catastrophe.  Emergency assistance can help pay for other immediate needs, such as shelter or clothing.

While replacement benefits and emergency assistance are an important way to help households hit by Hurricane Sandy, they may not meet the immediate food needs of many households for a myriad of reasons.  

As a practical matter, many SNAP households and other disaster victims will need to rely in the short term on life-saving emergency feeding programs run by FEMA, the Red Cross, local food banks (soup kitchens and food pantries) and other charitable organizations. 
 

What may be in the works


The Governor’s office and OTDA are looking at all available options.  There is a strong likelihood that New York and other states will get permission from USDA to provide broader relief than what is available through the regular replacement benefits process.  The possibilities include, but are not limited to:

  • Granting an extension of time for recipients to request replacement benefits
  • Issuing “mass” or auto-replacements to recipients
  • Allowing SNAP recipients to purchase hot foods with SNAP benefits
  • Opening up a disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) in designated disaster counties. 


A D-SNAP would be able to serve households who do not ordinarily qualify for SNAP benefits, but have urgent food needs due to the disaster.  New York has run a D-SNAP three times in the past:  in NYC after the September 11, 2011 terrorist attack; in 2006, in upstate counties affected by severe flooding; and last year in upstate counties hit hard by Tropical Storms Irene and Lee.

The steps that states must undertake to obtain approval from USDA for D-SNAP and/or waivers on replacement benefits are quite rigorous and time consuming.  Therefore, it may take several more days or even longer before we learn what sort of broader relief may be available to Sandy victims through SNAP.

We will certainly keep you posted with any news that we learn.  In the meantime, for more general information about disaster assistance and SNAP, read the Food Research and Action Center’s excellent An Advocate’s Guide to the Disaster Food Stamp Program and USDA’s Disaster SNAP Guidance handbook.     


If you have any specific questions about SNAP and disaster assistance, please feel free to contact Cathy Roberts here at Empire Justice (croberts@empirejustice.org or 518-462-6831 x 112).



Tags: hurrican sandy | snap | food stamps | d-snap | hunger solutions ny