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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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Giving Tuesday is November 29!


     

Looking for ways to take ACTION?
 
On Tuesday, November 29, 2016, come together with other people, charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world for one common purpose: to support organizations that DO GOOD.
 
The day has many names—internationally known as #GivingTuesday, we also have the stateside  'New York Gives' , and #ROCtheDay in Rochester.
 
Often lumped together with Black Friday during the holiday season, #GivingTuesday encourages people to invest in their community by donating to organizations that defend the values that they believe in. There's no rules for participation, just go to the website for the nonprofit(s) that you'd like to support and make a donation.
 
It's a chance for everyone to take part in supporting the values and ideals that you care about most. For us here at Empire Justice, it's laws and policies that make sense, community empowerment, and fairness for all in the justice system.
 
And that's what you get when you invest in Empire Justice - together with your help, we make the law work for all New Yorkers on a systemic level through policy advocacy, class actions, on-the-ground advocacy for individuals, and capacity building through training and support to other organizations around New York State.
 
So whatever way you choose to participate, #GivingTuesday, #ROCtheDay, or through New York Gives, choose fairness for all and help us make the law work for all New Yorkers.



Tags: civil rights | Giving Tuesday | Rochester | Albany | social justice | legal services | legal aid





Working for Workers: Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellow takes on wage theft, bolsters workers' rights


Don and Koo lobbying


Empire Justice Center is excited to welcome the 2015-17 Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellow Elizabeth Koo to the Workers’ Rights Project. Elizabeth, a community organizer-turned-community lawyer, credits the unjustifiable experiences and stories of our clients with energizing her passion for change.

Prior to earning her J.D. at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, Elizabeth served as a community organizer for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). During her five years at AALDEF, she was entrusted with personal, painful experiences—of stolen wages, working in extreme and unsafe conditions, and persistent barriers that kept her clients from asserting their legal rights. It’s this institutional injustice that motivated Elizabeth in her work as a Community Organizer for five years, and what inspired her to go to law school to gain more tools and skills, in order to bolster the movement for workers’ rights.

Now at Empire Justice for just over six months, she’s building relationships with local workers’ centers and community organizers. She’s also providing legal support to workers themselves, in order to empower them through litigation, education, and policy change.  And it’s this model—comprehensive legal advocacy and cooperation between organizers, lawyers and individuals—that Elizabeth believes in.

“The legal system can be a source of empowerment if a worker can access it, tell their story, and achieve their goals, but it can also be slow, rigid, and unfair,” she said, noting that together, organizers and attorneys are able to support the client in alternate ways.

In addition to representing low-income individuals in wage theft and discrimination cases and providing know-your-rights workshops and community legal education trainings throughout the Rochester community, Elizabeth is advocating on a statewide level. Namely, she is building coalition strength around the Securing Wages Earned Against Theft (SWEAT) bill (A.5501 [Rosenthal]/ S.2232 [Peralta]), which will provide essential tools to victims of wage theft and help workers collect on court-awarded judgments for stolen wages.

In wage theft cases, exploitative employers hide or transfer their assets to avoid paying wages they stole from their employees.  Even when workers win a court-awarded judgment, they are unlikely to collect the money owed to them.  And when they are unable to collect the wages they earned, the minimum wage and overtime laws are rendered useless.

This proposed legislation would prevent employers from simply refusing to participate in the legal process by defaulting and selling the business or shutting it down, thus effectively insulating themselves from liability.

“Even after a worker stands up for their rights, wins and gets a judgment against their employers, oftentimes they can’t collect the wages that were stolen at the end of the day because the employer has  filed for bankruptcy, transferred their assets, or closed down the business, only to operate a new one,” Elizabeth said.

This legislation will strengthen New York’s law, providing workers with legal tools to ensure payment of their earned wages once they are awarded a judgment. For example, the bill would allow workers to place a lien on the employers’ property if the employer refuses to comply with a court order to pay the  earned wages. Momentum has been growing around the SWEAT bill, as workers’ rights issues come to the fore. And in July of this year, Governor Cuomo created a Statewide Task Force to Combat Worker Exploitation and Abuse.

This is part of why Elizabeth believes it’s an exciting time in Western New York, as there are many people from this area on the Statewide Task Force. “It’s a good moment for us to build on recent attention to these issues and keep workers’ rights on the map.”

Coincidentally, Western New York is one place on the map that this Queens-native never thought she’d be living. That was until she was introduced to Jerry Wein, and thus the Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship. She and Wein met at the Feerick Center for Social Justice of Fordham Law School, where Wein (Hanna Cohn’s husband) served in the emeritus attorney program and where Elizabeth interned after her first year in law school.

The Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship is a prestigious fellowship awarded every two years to a dynamic, new attorney. The fellowship was established in 2002 in memory of Cohn, who was the Executive Director of the Volunteer Legal Services Project (VLSP) in Rochester for 20 years. The fellowship allows the attorney to design and implement a project to increase legal advocacy for Greater Rochester’s low-income individuals and families.

The fellows are often already leaders in their field—Elizabeth won the esteemed Samuel M. Kaynard Memorial Law School Student Service Awards, presented by the New York State Bar Association in 2015. She was also presented with the Haywood Burns Graduate Fellowship in Civil and Human Rights while in law school.

But Elizabeth admits that when Wein first mentioned the Fellowship, she wasn’t sure it was for her. It was “the perfect opportunity and dream job,” she recalls, but not in the city that she loved to call home. She grew up both on Long Island and in Queens, raised by newly emigrated parents who owned their own small business.

But as she advanced her legal career through clinical work and internships, representing clients in Workers’ Rights, consumer rights, public benefits and housing justice cases, doing the work that she loved in a new city didn’t seem so far-fetched.

“I’m so grateful to the family members and friends of the Hanna Cohn Memorial Fund, for giving me this tremendous opportunity to do work that I love.  It’s been exciting to learn about and explore Rochester through social justice work with the community here.”

“To be in a position of learning is a really humbling experience and to be doing community lawyering work right out of law school is a tremendous privilege,” she said, keenly aware of the challenges that face her in navigating a new place—not just the physical layout of the city, but the “community landscape.”

Empire Justice is thrilled to bring on an attorney with such a commitment to empowering low-income individuals. Like many of the Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellows, we believe her impact will be a great one.



Tags: Workers' Rights | Wage Theft | Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship





Principal Reductions in Mortgage Workouts are Essential to Reducing the Discriminatory Impact of Foreclosures


“Preserving an affordable home, in a stable neighborhood, for all Americans”—this phrase summarizes three key aspects of housing opportunity and the realization of the American dream.  The foreclosure crisis and the resulting recession, however, have undercut every aspect of this vision. 

Access to an affordable home with sustainable payments is out of reach for many more people today than before the crisis.  Millions of homeowners have already lost their home through foreclosure, are still at risk of foreclosure, or are stuck underwater with unaffordable mortgages as a result of the decline in housing values or lost income.  New York State alone currently has 122,544 mortgages in some stage of foreclosure, and another 197,507 that are seriously delinquent. [1] 

Moreover, due to stricter underwriting guidelines and other changes in the mortgage industry, the lower-income minority borrowers who are the potential purchasers most likely to help stabilize neighborhoods of color now have less access to affordable mortgages.

Our neighborhoods are at risk of instability and blight.  Worse yet, the neighborhoods that have seen the highest concentrations of foreclosures, resulting in higher numbers of vacant properties, are now seeing the steepest declines in housing values, putting many of these neighborhoods into a spiral of increasing instability and blight.

Rust-belt cities, like Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse, which already had high numbers of vacant properties before the foreclosure crisis, are experiencing sharp declines in their tax bases, and may soon have to adopt triage strategies to stop the spread of blight.

The foreclosure crisis has had a disparate impact on African American and Latino homeowners and communities.   Foreclosures have not affected all homeowners and communities equally.  Since foreclosures are disproportionately concentrated in minority neighborhoods, and since all of homeowners living in those neighborhoods are impacted by foreclosures, African American and Latino homeowners are suffering disproportionately.  That’s because we live today with patterns of segregation that were established decades ago.  Because we live in segregated communities, African American and Latino homeowners are several times more likely than White, non-Latino homeowners to live in the areas most impacted by foreclosures. 

Minority homeowners either in foreclosure, or living in neighborhoods impacted by foreclosures, are suffering disproportionately from declines in housing values and neighborhood instability.

To get neighborhoods of color back on track, so they can share in the economic and housing recovery, we need to keep as many homeowners as possible in their homes.  This is especially true for the homeowners in the neighborhoods most impacted by foreclosures.

Principal reductions based on true value assessments are fair.

Requiring mortgage servicers to do principal reductions – based on the true (i.e., reduced) value of homes in impacted areas – will help us get back on track by keeping more owners in their homes, reducing  foreclosure-associated vacancies, stabilizing impacted neighborhoods, and thus reducing  the disproportionate impact of foreclosures and foreclosure-related vacancies on African American and Latino homeowners and neighborhoods.  Banks and servicers wouldn’t be losing anything, they’d just be recognizing the lost value of their assets that had already occurred.

Principal reductions must factor in the effect that HIGHER CONCENTRATIONS of foreclosures have on property values.  

True value assessments done in conjunction with principal reductions would result in a greater number of successful loan modifications and keep more owners from losing their homes.  But to do true value assessments, the impact of higher concentrations of foreclosures must be taken into account.  Neighborhoods with high concentrations of foreclosures [2] can be readily identified [3] and property valuations can be adjusted fairly.  If we fail or refuse to do principal reductions that take into account the greater drops in home values created by concentrations of foreclosures, it will be African American and Latino homeowners and minority neighborhoods as a whole who suffer. [4]

We can address the problem of concentrated foreclosures by urging federal policy makers to act.  The Federal Housing Finance Agency, the agency that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, needs to begin to not only allow, but to require mortgage servicers to do principal reductions.  Congress needs to pass legislation requiring principal reductions and true value assessment.

Let’s make minority homeowners and communities of color equal participants in the nation’s housing recovery.


End Notes:
 [1] Empire Justice Center estimate using data from the CoreLogic, “National Foreclosure Report,” December 2013, as found at http://www.corelogic.com/research/foreclosure-report/national-foreclosure-report-december-2013.pdf.
 [2] Note, however, that zip code foreclosure totals alone are not sufficiently accurate for this purpose. For example, a suburban zip code with 350 foreclosures is not impacted as severely as an urban zip code with the same number of foreclosures, but which is 1/43 the size. (This is an actual example based on zip codes 14619 and 14580 in Monroe County, NY). Instead, the rate of foreclosures and geographic density should be taken into account. That can readily be done at the census tract level.
 [3] Empire Justice Center did this on Long Island. See our report.
 [4] These findings are based upon a data analysis conducted by the Empire Justice Center in New York State which included an evaluation of all foreclosures initiated in Rochester NY since January 1, 2009, mapping the foreclosures and linking the court records for each property to the city’s property information database, as well as census demographics for minority homeowners, in order to evaluate the characteristics of properties in foreclosure including location, concentration, case status, vacancy status and changes in ownership. 



Tags: foreclosure | minority homeowners | African American | Latino | neighborhoods of color | principal reductions | housing opportunity | FHFA





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





Still working on that sunlight


In my last post, I talked about the need for better data to increase transparency and accountability in the mortgage lending market.  This week I have a great opportunity to make my case.  I am one of several consumer advocates from across the country who will be talking with staff at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) about what information would be most useful to the public, regulators and policy makers, and how this information can be efficiently collected from mortgage lenders and servicers.

We will be talking with the CFPB about data-related issues, all of which are part of Dodd-Frank [1] and are critical to shedding more light on mortgage lending and servicing in this country:

(1) data enhancements to the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) dataset,
(2) the establishment of a default and foreclosure database and
(3) the public availability of the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) loan modification data.

Maybe I’m just really curious, but when homeowners default on their mortgage loans, I want to understand what led these homeowners to default while other homeowners continue to pay and stay current on their loans.  Specifically, were borrowers with certain loan terms more likely to default than other borrowers?  And were the borrowers who defaulted able to get affordable loan modifications?  Using data from these databases, we should be able to point to the answers.

However, these datasets are three separate entities, collected at different points in time and often from two or more different reporting entities.  So we need a way to easily connect the data from one database to the other. This is why during our meeting with the CFPB this week I am going to be the champion of the “universal loan identifier,” or universal loan ID.  Are you still with me?  I hope so, because this is important.

The universal loan ID would first be used by the lender when it reports the loan under HMDA.  The ID would then follow the loan to the servicer and, if needed, be used when reporting any defaults, foreclosures or modifications related to that loan.  This relieves the servicer from collecting and reporting a variety of borrower and loan-related data pieces, including borrower income, race/ethnicity, gender, age and credit score, loan amount, term, APR and mortgage channel.  Regulators, policy makers and the public would already have access to this information in the HMDA data via the universal loan ID.

I believe the universal loan ID is the key to increased transparency and accountability, without sacrificing efficiency.

End Note:
 [1] See Sections 1094, 1447 and 1483 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act for the language pertaining to these datasets.



Tags: HMDA | Consumer Financial Protection Bureau | CFPB | mortgage lending | defaults | foreclosures | loan modifications





Free Legal Help for Monroe County Homeowners in Foreclosure


Did you know that if homeowners are struggling with their mortgage and facing foreclosure, there are professional and FREE services available from local attorneys to help them understand the foreclosure process? 

 

The possibility of losing a home can be incredibly frightening, and at times overwhelming.  The legal foreclosure process is a game with its own set of rules and regulations.  If a homeowner doesn’t know the rules of the game, it is much less likely she will keep her home in the end.  But there is help. Empire Justice Center offers two free legal clinics every month for anyone who wants to better understand the foreclosure process.  The clinics are developed to teach homeowners the rules and to enable them to take some control over a very stressful and confusing process. 

 

Under New York State law, most homeowners in foreclosure are entitled to a “Settlement Conference.”  This will occur early in the foreclosure process (once a homeowner has been served with a Summons and Complaint), and will involve the homeowner and an attorney for the bank appearing before a judge or judge’s law clerk.  The goal of the Settlement Conference is simple: to attempt to come to some alternative to foreclosure. 

 

The Settlement Conference is a relatively new process, having been created by the New York State Assembly three years ago.  It was created at the urging of housing counselors and legal advocates around the State, including Empire Justice, who saw that homeowners were not being treated fairly by their banks when they fell behind on their mortgages.  Paperwork was getting “lost,” questions were not being answered, and homeowners were growing increasingly frustrated.  The Settlement Conference is there to protect the homeowner and ensure that someone is watching out to make sure the banks are doing what they are required to do under New York and federal law.

 

There are several alternatives to foreclosure that may be possible for homeowners: entering some form of a loan modification (which would allow the owner to keep her home and have a revised mortgage payment), agreeing to a repayment plan (which would allow the owner to keep her home by paying back all missed payments to the Bank over a short period of time), or entering a “short sale” or “deed in lieu of foreclosure” (which would NOT allow the owner to keep her home, but would limit the negative consequences to her credit). 

 

We understand that it can be incredibly frightening for homeowners to receive the letter telling them have to attend the Settlement Conference.  And that makes sense – most of us try to avoid the courthouse if we can!  In this case, however, attending a Settlement Conference represents the best chance a homeowner has to save her home.  So if a homeowner wants to save her home (or even to just limit the impact of losing her home), it is vital that every homeowner attend their Settlement Conference.  

 

To learn more about the details of the foreclosure process, and what homeowners should be doing at any given stage of that process, we encourage struggling homeowners to attend the FREE clinics put on by Empire Justice Center.  Dates and times for upcoming clinics are listed below (for additional dates, see our calendar).

 

 Place

Time

Dates

545 Hall of Justice, Room 25

99 Exchange Blvd.

Rochester, NY  14604

 

 12:30 - 1:30 pm Oct, 31, Nov, 28, Dec, 19

United Way Building

1st Floor Confrence Room

75 College Ave.

Rochester, NY  14607

 6:00 to 7:00 pm Oct, 11, Nov, 8, Dec, 13


Tags: foreclosure | mortgage | homeowner | legal clinic | settlement conference | loan modification





The need for more sunlight on the mortgage lending marketplace


Why do borrowers and communities of color get FHA and other government-backed mortgage loans disproportionately more often than white borrowers and communities? This is the question I’ve been hearing and grappling with since the recent publication of our multi-state collaborative report “Paying More for the American Dream VI: Racial Disparities in FHA/VA Lending.” I, too, want to understand why this is happening. More specifically, why did FHA/VA loans make up over 86 percent of the home purchase loans in Rochester’s communities of color in 2010? And why were only 14 percent of the borrowers in these communities able to get conventional mortgages?

 

The data we have available, or the lack thereof, make it difficult to answer these questions. Other than borrower income, the public has little information about the borrower that might shed some light on how lenders make underwriting decisions. If I had information about the borrower’s credit history/credit score, her debt-to-income ratio, the property’s loan-to-value ratio, the loan’s APR, I might begin to know why a borrower obtained the loan she did. Right now, however, I am left wondering.

 

I don’t want to wonder or guess; I want to understand. That is why I am disappointed that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently published a delay in its rulemaking to implement enhancements, like those listed above, to the publicly available data. These enhancements were in the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation that became law two years ago. It now looks like the earliest we’ll have a rule is April 2013,[1] so we’ll probably have to keep guessing until at least the fall of 2015 when the 2014 data are released.

 

I want to trust that when a borrower walks through the doors of any lender, he or she has full choice of the range of conventional and government-backed mortgage products available from that lender. And I want to see that lenders are putting borrowers into the most affordable loan that fits their individual financial circumstances. Along with vigorous enforcement of our fair lending laws and other regulatory improvements, this increased transparency will improve our understanding of and trust in the process. As Justice Brandeis said, "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."[2] Too bad we have to wait a bit longer for the sun to shine.



[1] The CFPB’s regulatory schedule notes that the “CFPB expects further action” as of April, 2013. See p.7 of schedule at: http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201204_cfpb_semiannual-regulatory-agenda_2012-spring.pdf.

[2] As found at: http://www.brandeis.edu/legacyfund/bio.html under Louis D. Brandeis quotes.



Tags: mortgage lending | lending | HMDA | Dodd-Frank | FHA | lending disparities | redlining | discrimination | fair lending | paying more