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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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It Looks Like Payday Lending Bill Is Off the Table in New York; Consumers Can Breathe a Sigh of Relief…For Now

Issue Area: Consumer

Last week I drafted a piece on the mounting evidence that payday lending is bad for consumers.  I am happy to say that I had to throw that piece in the recycle bin.

On Monday, Superintendent Ben Lawsky sent a letter to NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver saying that the NYS Department of Financial Services opposes the “short-term financial services loan act” (A.1113-A/S.3999-A), legislation that would permit licensed check cashers in New York to make small dollar loans. 

Lawsky’s letter states, “The bill creates an exception to New York's criminal usury law for licensed check cashers.  By setting a 25 percent cap on interest rates, the bill obscures the true impact of these loans.  In fact, when taking into account all of the fees permitted by the bill, the actual annualized interest rates consumers would pay balloon into the triple digits.  The payday loans envisioned by the bill are the types of loans that the current 25% criminal usury cap was designed to keep out of New York.”

The Albany Times Union and the New York Daily News suggest that this strong stance taken by the Cuomo administration has essentially killed the legislation.

This comes on top of actions taken last week by federal regulators in proposing stronger guidance around deposit advance products.  The standards proposed by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) would, among other things, require the banks they regulate to take into account the borrower’s ability to repay the loan and to limit the number of loans made to a borrower to six per year.

Also last week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) released a study showing that payday or deposit advance loans trap consumers into a cycle of debt, leading to ruined credit for the borrower and billions of dollars in wealth being stripped from low and moderate income communities and neighborhoods of color.

According to the CFPB, “Lenders often do not take a borrower’s ability to repay into consideration when making a loan.  Instead, they may rely on ensuring they are one of the first in line to be repaid from a borrower’s income.  For the consumer, this means there may not be sufficient funds after paying off the loan for expenses such as for their rent or groceries – leading them to return to the bank or payday lender for more money.”

This likely defeat of New York’s Short Term Financial Services Loan Act is a huge victory for consumers in New York.  Nevertheless, as noted in a NY Daily News editorial, we need to continue to be vigilant in keeping usurious payday lending and deposit advance products out of New York.

To see the most recent news and articles on payday lending, click here.

Tags: payday lending | check cashers | usury | CFPB | deposit advance loans | DFS | small dollar loans | OCC | FDIC

This American Life and NPR Unfair and Inaccurate in Portrayal of Social Security Disability Recipients and Programs

National Public Radio (NPR) recently joined the chorus of media mis-portrayals of our country’s Social Security disability programs. In a one hour segment broadcast on This American Life and rebroadcast in shorter segments on All Things Considered, reporter Chana Joffe-Walt paints a misleading and inaccurate picture of these critical programs.

Ms. Joffe-Walt mistakenly claims that the standards for disability have changed dramatically since 1984, opening the floodgates for seemingly specious claims. This simply isn’t true. The standard remains very stringent. In fact, less than 40 percent of adult applicants are approved for benefits.

She also makes much of the so-called “Disability Industrial Complex,” as she calls the community of lawyers who represent disability claimants before the Social Security Administration. While many may find the lawyer advertising cited in the report distasteful, Ms. Joffe-Walt gives short shrift to the fact that claimants need advocates to navigate the very complex regulatory and adjudicatory world of Social Security.  In fact, that is one of our key roles here at Empire Justice Center – we help those in need navigate the complex legal and medical maze of applying for federal disability benefits. We know firsthand the gauntlet our clients are made to go through.  Our success rate of over 80% - in a time when Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) approval rates are declining - underscores how necessary our services are to our clients.

For a more detailed analysis of the misinformation in the NPR report, read the March 27, 2013 letter of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities to which Empire Justice is a signatory.

And if you want to let NPR know how you feel about the story, here are some suggested critiques developed by our national colleagues:

NPR can do better -- Take Action on Twitter, Facebook, & by phone!

Twitter: Please use the hashtag #unfittoair and tweet @NPRnews. Sample tweets:

@NPRnews “Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair. Full of errors & stereotypes abt people w/disabilities. Contact @ccd4pwd & cover the real story!

@NPRnews #SocialSecurity #SSI are lifelines 4 ppl w/severe disabilities. “Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair. Contact @ccd4pwd 4 the real story!

@NPRnews The #disability standard is strict & most apps are denied. 1 in 5 male #SSDI recips die w/in 5 yrs of getting benfts. “Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair.

@NPRnews 1 in 5 male #SSDI recipients die w/in 5yr of getting benfts. “Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair. Contact @ccd4pwd 4 the real story

@NPRnews #SSDI growth due to boomers in hi-disability yrs & women going 2 work in ‘70s/‘80s so more qualify.“Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair

@NPRnews #SSI is a lifeline 4 kids w/severe disabilities. Helps meet costs of care & encourages education. “Unfit for Work” was #unfittoair.

@CenterOnBudget has the facts on #disability after @nprnews got it wrong:

Facebook: post a comment on NPR’s wall. Sample posts:

“Unfit for Work” was unfit to air – full of errors & stereotypes about people with disabilities. Please contact and cover the real story! “Unfit to Work” missed half the story. No mention of how hard it is to qualify for disability benefits, or how severely impaired SSDI and SSI beneficiaries are. Please contact and cover the real story!

“Unfit to Work” was unfit to air – missing key facts. Demographics explain the growth in SSDI – boomers aging into their high-disability years and women entering the workforce in the ‘70s and ‘80s so they’re now insured for benefits. Please contact and cover the real story!

By Phone - Call your local NPR station!

To find your local station, visit:

Call the station and ask to leave a message for the Station Manager. Tell them: I am outraged by NPR’s poor coverage of the Social Security disability programs. NPR’s recent story, “Unfit for Work,” was slanted, misleading, and full of errors and stereotypes of people with disabilities. NPR can do better. I urge NPR to retract this story.”

If you speak with anyone at your local NPR station who wants to do a story, please have them contact or

Tags: disability | NPR | National Public Radio | This American Life | Social Security | All Things Considered | Chana Joffe-Walt | Social Security Administration | Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities

D-SNAP update – New York City and Long Island

Issue Area: Public Benefits

New York City:  The Human Resources Administration (HRA) has gotten approval to operate a Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP), for one week beginning on Wednesday, December 12th.    D-SNAP will help thousands of New York City’s Hurricane Sandy survivors buy food.  However, due to limitations in the program, not all needy disaster victims will have access to this 100% federally funded food assistance benefit.  Advocates are calling on HRA, OTDA and USDA to expand New York City’s D-SNAP

Long Island:   To date, neither Nassau nor Suffolk County DSS has made a formal request to operate D-SNAP.  Don Friedman from our Central Islip office is part of an ad hoc coalition of advocates aiming to make D-SNAP a reality on Long Island.  The coalition sent letters, signed by 40 organizations, to the Nassau and Suffolk County social services  commissioners  asking them to request D-SNAP immediately, and developed a fact sheet outlining the benefits of D-SNAP.  The coalition estimates that D-SNAP could bring over $13 million in federal funds to local food retailers across Long Island, and help put food on the table for 100,000 low-income households recovering from Hurricane Sandy.  For more information, contact Don Friedman at

Tags: HRA | Superstorm Sandy | D-SNAP | food stamps | Hurricane Sandy | OTDA

Volunteer to Help Hardworking Families!!

Issue Area: Consumer

The holiday season brings out the volunteer spirit in all of us. But for most of us it’s also an extremely busy time of year. So why not make a commitment today to volunteer during tax season after the holidays!


C.A.S.H. [Creating Assets, Savings and Hope] is a community coalition that helps working families in Monroe County, GET, KEEP, and GROW their money.  One of the ways we are able to do this is by offering free income tax preparation to income eligible households and connecting them to community resources.  In 2012, over 500 volunteers helped 13,000 families resulting in tax refunds of $24 million going back into their pockets and this community.


We are about more than just preparing tax returns, so there is an opportunity for everyone!!  Click HERE for a list of volunteer opportunities that are available.


Top Reasons to become a C.A.S.H. Volunteer:

  • Ability to help hundreds of low income families
  • No experience necessary, flexible training schedule provided for all roles
  • Great resume builder
  • Opportunity to network with hundreds of volunteers
  • Flexible enough for any schedule - volunteer days, nights or weekends for 3-4 hours per week at a site of your choice.


Bring a coworker, family member, or friend with you to a Volunteer Information Meeting* to learn more about how you can get involved.  Join us on Sat Dec 15 11am-1pm or Mon, Dec 17, 5–7pm or Sat Jan 5, 9–11am. Contact me to reserve your spot at 585-295-5733 or


* Meetings are held at the United Way of Greater Rochester on 75 College Avenue, 14607.

Tags: Income Tax Prepration | Volunteer | VITA | Coalition | CASH

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 [] 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. [].].


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