Lefkowitz: Help homeowners in foreclosure get mediation
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There's a crisis brewing for homeowners on Long Island. Thousands of foreclosures filed against homeowners in the past three years are sitting in limbo. Cases get stuck because banks are not filing the required court papers that trigger a homeowner's right to meet with the lender in a court-supervised settlement conference -- a system designed to find alternatives to foreclosure. According to the state's Office of Court Administration, there were 25,000 homeowners stuck in this system as of last July.
This growing backlog has become known as the "shadow docket." New York's notoriously long foreclosure timeline -- some cases take up to four years, while the national average is just over one year -- is due in great part to these delays, and it is harming homeowners across Long Island.
Delays make a difficult process even more painful for homeowners. They make it much more difficult to settle foreclosure cases, as fees and costs pile up for months or, in some cases, years. Furthermore, courts are strapped by the backlog, unable to move these cases forward.
One of the greatest injustices is that homeowners are denied access to court-supervised mediation. Mandated in 2009 by the State Legislature for all residential foreclosures, the settlement conferences are intended to bring the bank and homeowner together to see if a loan modification or some other remedy can save the home from foreclosure.
Since 2010, our nonprofit organization, Labor & Industry for Education, has represented more than 400 homeowners on Long Island and in New York City in these proceedings, striving to keep people in their homes. It is at this point in the proceedings -- after a homeowner becomes delinquent, but before the foreclosure -- that we have the most success obtaining modifications, including lowered interest rates, forbearance agreements, extending the loan term and reducing principal. It is much more difficult for us to negotiate with lenders, however, when the cases sit in the shadow docket.
A bill recently introduced in the New York State Legislature would solve this problem by simply requiring banks to file all the necessary paperwork at the same time they file the foreclosure action. Currently, there's no mandate for when the paperwork must be filed. The Office of Court Administration and Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman proposed this legislative fix, and it has been introduced and championed by Assemb. Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn) and Senate Co-Leader Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx). The proposal would require banks to do their due diligence before filing a case and verify up front that "there is a reasonable basis for the commencement of such action and that the plaintiff is currently the creditor entitled to enforce rights under such documents." Banks would not be able to file foreclosure actions unless the paperwork that triggers the court-supervised mediation is filed at the same time -- eliminating those delays. The legislative fix is simple, straightforward, and it would expedite the process by which struggling homeowners can potentially find relief.
More than 30 percent of New York's foreclosures are on Long Island, greater than any other region of the state. Our economic recovery depends on our housing recovery, which won't happen with thousands of families trapped in foreclosure. It has been well documented that when a home goes into foreclosure, surrounding property values decrease, tax revenues diminish, and surrounding communities are hurt. We need to get these cases moving through the court system again, get homeowners loan modifications and get vacant properties back on the market.
The bill passed the Assembly last week. Now the Senate must move swiftly and pass it, too, so Long Island homeowners are not left in limbo.
Rabbi Simcha Lefkowitz is executive director of Labor & Industry for Education, a nonprofit organization based in Cedarhurst.