A home agenda before Albany: We must help families keep their housing


Originally published in Daily News on .
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Every year, during frenzied state budget negotiations, the governor and the Legislature must decide how to allocate finite resources toward a nearly infinite range of needs. But we cannot lose sight of how essential certain programs are.

A $233 billion budget is a direct message to New Yorkers that tells them what we care about — and how much we care about it.

Here’s one question we must answer: Is keeping families in the homes they own worth $40 million of that budget?

That’s what it costs to fund the Homeowner Protection Program, or HOPP, a crucial network that provides free housing counseling and legal services for homeowners facing foreclosure and deed theft.


HOPP supports nonprofit housing assistance providers in all 62 counties. This level of involvement stops people from being forced out of their homes and helps prevent the kind of reduction in the local tax base that can hollow out a community.

The deed theft legislation Gov. Hochul recently signed — and more provisions the governor, the Legislature, and Attorney General Tish James are working on — are major new tools to protect homeowners. But if we leave HOPP funding out of the budget, many New Yorkers will lack the legal help they need to benefit from those tools.

Our economy as a whole may be experiencing a soft landing, but for lower- and moderate-income New Yorkers, the ghosts of economic crises past still haunt their housing stability. In New York City, 1 in 10 homeowners is either seriously delinquent on their mortgage or facing foreclosure outright, according to the New York Fed.

Four years after the arrival of COVID-19 in New York, consider the impact that the pandemic has had. Many homeowners who lost jobs or rental income from tenants are still struggling to catch up. As of last fall, the percentage of New Yorkers who were late on their mortgage payments was double the rate of delinquency at the height of the Great Recession.

The people most at risk live primarily in communities of color. Last year’s monthly average of mortgage delinquency in New York was 15% among Black and Hispanic homeowners, more than double that of white homeowners.

After decades of exclusionary redlining and targeting for predatory loans by big banks, residents of these communities are still being assailed by an array of bad actors.

Deed theft scammers who want to steal properties in gentrifying neighborhoods by posing as financial advisors or acting as a lifeline for improving a bad credit score. Unscrupulous debt buyers trying to collect on decades-old mortgages that families assumed had been erased. Private firms manipulating inheritance laws to force lawful residents to sell their homes.

Here’s the good news: HOPP is one of the most effective programs the state runs.

Last year, more than 20,000 people received assistance from HOPP — protecting their rights in court, lowering their bill payments and preventing avoidable foreclosures with home-saving solutions that benefit homeowners, lenders and local governments. Since the program began more than a decade ago, the rate of default judgments against homeowners in foreclosure lawsuits has dwindled to a fraction of what it once was.

HOPP helps New Yorkers navigate the complex web of government programs that sprang up in the wake of the pandemic to assist distressed borrowers. Accessing relief from state, federal and private programs requires knowing the details of how they work, who is eligible and who even owns the loan in the first place — a process that few people without legal degrees or extensive experience with these programs would have.

Iona Jarmond, a Staten Island resident and HOPP client, said that her free lawyer has helped with dozens of issues she could not have handled on her own, from investigating her mortgage loan to getting a property tax exemption. Jarmond was at risk of losing the home she shared with her husband for decades — where they raised five adopted children.

Over two years of work, through rejections and an appeal, Jennifer Lerman, Jarmond’s attorney from Legal Services NYC’s Staten Island office, was able to more than halve her mortgage payment, from $2,400 a month to $1,100 a month.

“I think of her as our guardian angel,” Jarmond said of Lerman. “This program is so necessary. I don’t know where we’d be without it.”

Now, in the countdown to the final budget, due March 31, we are calling for a continued strong push to secure funding for this critical program.

We can pass all the laws we want. We can fund new home construction. But without funding HOPP, we’ll be leaving some of our state’s most vulnerable residents to fend for themselves.

Kavanagh chairs the state Senate Housing Committee. Inwald is director of litigation-economic justice at Legal Services NYC.