On Long Island, families work for years to save up enough money to buy a home and put down roots in a community. But once they achieve their dream of becoming a homeowner, there are so many hurdles to preserve it — disability, death of a spouse, temporary unemployment, predatory scammers who target seniors to give up rights to their homes, extreme weather events like superstorm Sandy that cause serious damage, and now the coronavirus pandemic.
Owning a home is the single biggest investment families make in their lifetime and for low- and middle-income New Yorkers, it can be a constant struggle. But for the past decade, the Homeowner Protection Program has been critical for New Yorkers facing housing distress. The program provides free non-profit legal and housing counseling services across New York State and has helped more than 100,000 families to avoid foreclosures.
Now, that safety net is in danger of crashing down. The state must allocate $20 million a year in the state budget permanently to fund the program, or it would virtually disappear overnight. The statewide hotline and intake for homeowners in need would shut down. Because of the funding uncertainty, local non-profits that have been the bedrocks of so many communities are already having to ramp down their services in anticipation of a potential shutdown.
This is, of course, a difficult time for lawmakers in Albany, who were already facing a $6 billion deficit, one that is now compounded by the coronavirus outbreak. But the money allocated to this program saves more money in the long term, and is particularly important at a time when homeowners may face further economic stress, as jobs are lost and small businesses must shutter, at least temporarily.
Since 2008, the state has enacted laws to address the dramatic increase in residential foreclosures, but these laws need advocates who can ensure that they work for New York homeowners. In 2019, nearly 35,000 Suffolk County homeowners and 23,000 Nassau County residents received mortgage delinquency notices, against 3,000 new foreclosure cases filed in Suffolk and 2,000 filed in Nassau. Tens of thousands of homeowners — with assistance from HOPP-funded non-profits — were able to cure their defaults before foreclosure proceedings were started.
We both have worked for years helping clients in foreclosure with the assistance of HOPP funding, and have seen how intervention by a nonprofit attorney or housing counselor can save a home that a family would have lost otherwise. Without this $20 million in state funding, Long Island seniors, veterans, first-time homeowners, and so many more across New York State will suffer from not having the assistance of skilled professionals to navigate these traumatic events.
Without knowledgeable advocates to help them, many more homeowners who seek to modify their mortgages will be left to represent themselves. The banks’ complicated, bureaucratic processes are often nearly impossible to understand and succeed at without a nonprofit counselor. An increase in loss of homes due to foreclosures will have a devastating domino effect on our communities, including displacement, abandoned homes and blight.
The state must dedicate $20 million in the executive budget permanently to the program so families can continue to have access to the support from local nonprofits. Even at a dark moment economically, this is money that can’t be left out the state budget. Without the program, thousands stand to lose their homes and will be alone during the most difficult times of their lives.
Ian Wilder is executive director of the nonprofit Long Island Housing Services. Michael Wigutow is senior staff attorney for the Nassau Suffolk Law Services Committee