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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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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





Bravo to AG Schneiderman

Issue Area: Consumer

There has been much discussion about the lawsuit recently filed by New York’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, against JP Morgan for fraudulent activities committed by Bear Stearns before JP Morgan acquired it in March 2008.  For the record, Empire Justice Center is very supportive of these efforts and appreciative of the leadership role Attorney General Schneiderman has taken in pursuing accountability in the face of opposition.  It’s a matter of justice – those that do wrong should be held accountable for the harms they caused to both investors and homeowners.

It is absolutely critical that as a society we ensure that the predatory practices of the last decade are never repeated again.  Today, many of the failed predatory lenders have been acquired by the “Too Big to Fail Banks,” like Bank of America.  The price paid by the acquiring banks factored in the need to provide justice to those harmed by the predatory lenders and the litigation risks involved with the purchase. 

These failed companies were not bought by mom and pop banks.  Acquiring institutions bought them at fire sale prices.  The 52 week high for Bear Stearns’ stock before the crisis occurred was $133 a share.  JP Morgan ultimately purchased Bear Stearns for only $10 a share.  Having paid the fire sale rate, the acquiring banks must live by the rules of the free market.  Armies of well-paid lawyers and investment bankers reviewed the bank mergers.  Therefore, it is completely disingenuous for the banks to complain about being held accountable for the very bad practices that drove down the price they paid for the predatory lenders.  The litigation they now face was entirely predictable and was precisely why the predatory lenders were sold at the dramatically lower prices.  Again, the cost of losing litigation and having to make whole those harmed by the illegal conduct of the predatory lenders was factored into the sale price.

Many of those who now advocate giving the acquiring banks a free pass, have in the past actually opposed the need to provide financial relief to the victims of predatory lending.  They cited the risk of “moral hazard.”  While we don’t see any moral hazard in making the victims of predatory lending whole, we are a bit surprised by the inconsistency of those who fail to see the moral hazard in letting the acquiring backs off the hook.  To the contrary, there is a clear moral hazard in not holding predatory lenders and their acquiring institutions responsible for illegal acts that were wide-spread in the industry.  Litigation such as the NY Attorney General’s against these predatory practices will play an important role in ensuring these practices are not repeated in the future because those in the industry will know that a lender's sins will not be washed away with a sale.

Furthermore, the after effects of the financial crisis these perpetrators caused have directly resulted in hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers facing the loss of their homes.  Millions of families have seen a lifetime of savings wiped out.  Entire neighborhoods have seen price declines of 20- 40%.  Millions of homeowners have had to help bear the cost of the financial meltdown – shouldn't those harmed by illegal conduct be provided with compensation?

Despite the real suffering families are experiencing, our analysis of foreclosure data shows that the worst may still be ahead of us.  Foreclosures are still making their way through the courts.  The full impact of completed foreclosures and the consequences on hundreds of neighborhoods is still to be experienced.  Tens of thousands families who are unable to receive significant loan modifications will start facing eviction and potential homelessness.  Many minority communities will be impacted more than others.

Homeowners and their advocates have long been pushing State and Federal regulators to take legal action against these abusive practices.  We are proud of the New York Attorney General’s long history of protecting the rights of consumers and we applaud our Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for his leadership and for continuing with the tradition.



Tags: foreclosure | predatory lending | Bear Sterns | too big to fail | JP Morgan





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