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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





Winning with tenacity- Empire Justice helps save another home from foreclosure

Issue Area: Housing

Dave is the epitome of tenacity. For more than four years he’s been fighting tooth and nail to save his family’s home from foreclosure.  A single father of three and a Navy veteran, Dave was unable to work after a back injury during his service.  So he used his savings to pay his mortgage, until that was no longer an option.

In 2011 his lender filed a foreclosure action against him, and he faced the possibility of losing his home.

Throughout the four-year process of fighting foreclosure and applying for a loan modification, Dave received what seemed like a never ending flood of repeated document requests. At each turn we helped him gather and submit the tax forms, the benefit letters, and the bank statements. Only to have the banks come back and say they didn’t receive them or requesting more information, leading to the entire process being repeated.

All in all, we submitted 15 loss mitigation packets—an extraordinary amount for a typical foreclosure case—each totaling over 80 pages.

But Dave was determined. He wouldn’t give up, and neither would we.

Together we tried every option available. Our advocates escalated the case several times, and each time the bank claimed that they didn’t own the loan, that their “hands were tied.” Dave contacted the press, he contacted the Veterans Administration, and he filed a complaint with the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB). We highlighted his case in our policy report, In the Eye of the Storm: Why the Threat of Foreclosure Damage Continues (link), putting pressure on policymakers to support neighborhoods and homeowners like Dave.

It is this type relentless advocacy - tenacity - that ultimately leads to a win.

Utilizing all of our advocacy tools, we convinced the bank to take responsibility for the loan, and they gave Dave the modification he needed to afford his monthly payments.  Now he and his three kids can stay in the house that for the last 13 years they've called home.

Congratulations, Dave!


suburban house






While we celebrate this success, we recognize that there are many homeowners that face the foreclosure process alone, without an attorney. Your support helps us represent more homeowners—stabilizing neighborhoods, communities, and families. Thank you.


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US Supreme Court Upholds Disparate Impact Standard under the Fair Housing Act

Issue Area: Housing, Consumer

One of the more notable, though less noted decisions coming out of the U.S. Supreme Court in the past week was its ruling on June 25, 2015, to uphold the long-standing tenet that the Fair Housing Act prohibits policies that have a discriminatory impact, even if the discrimination was not intentional. 

Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project was brought by a Texas group who challenged the state’s housing agency’s issuance of tax credits for the development of affordable housing.  The group contested that the housing built through these credits was being concentrated in racially segregated, African-American and Latino neighborhoods in Dallas.  The effect of the policy, they argued, has a “disparate impact” on minorities and thus violates the Fair Housing Act (FHA). 

The FHA makes it illegal to refuse to sell, rent, “or otherwise make unavailable” housing to anyone because of race, national origin, gender, familial status, and disability.  The 5-4 decision authored by Justice Kennedy emphasizes that a broad-reading of the statute is necessary to combat discriminatory conduct.  For as the court noted, “Recognition of disparate-impact liability under the FHA also plays a role in uncovering discriminatory intent: It permits plaintiffs to counteract unconscious prejudices and disguised animus that escape easy classification as disparate treatment.  In this way disparate-impact liability may prevent segregated housing patterns that might otherwise result from covert and illicit stereotyping.” (Texas Dept. of Hsg.  v. Inclusive Communities, at 17-18).

Fair housing and anti-discrimination advocates are cheering the decision because strong and effective fair housing laws are vital to ensuring equal opportunity in housing.  Governmental policies such as zoning laws or enforcement of housing codes may seem benign on their face, but have detrimental discriminatory impacts.  The same holds true for private corporations such as developers, real estate professionals, and lenders – programs that seem neutral on paper may in fact further disenfranchise people. 

This decision is a tremendous victory not only for those communities, but for all of us.  Equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination benefits everyone.









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





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