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Editorial: Housing program needs to be funded

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo should include $20 million in his executive budget next month to continue funding for housing services that help mostly low-income and middle-class residents cope with mortgage foreclosures, e-theft scams and other threats to their homes.

Without a new source of funding, some of the state’s network of 89 organizations will have to sharply reduce their programs or close their doors on March 31, depriving those in need of important legal and counseling services.

In response, the organizations are promoting the “Communities First” proposal consisting of a regionalized approach to combat urgent statewide housing issues including:

• Zombie properties.

• Mitigation of distressed mortgage foreclosures.

• Efforts to stop property scammers from stealing people’s homes.

• Support for the state’s seniors during reverse mortgage foreclosure settlement conferences.

The state’s network of housing counseling and legal services providers spent the past decade offering support to homeowners in every county and across Western New York, including Erie, Niagara, Orleans, Wyoming and Genesee counties and, in some cases, into the Southern Tier.

Now, in a forewarning of potential harm, the Western New York Law Center is deciding whether to reduce intake or possibly lay off staff. For this region, it would be the equivalent of losing 10 legal service attorneys working full-time, representing distressed homeowners. The number does not include support staff and housing counseling agencies. For clients threatened with foreclosure, the loss could be calamitous.

Some of the highest foreclosure filing zip codes in this region include Orchard Park, Hamburg and Lancaster, according to Kate Lockhart, foreclosure data manager at the Western New York Law Center.

The need is growing. Erie County is on track to post 8 percent more 90-day pre-foreclosure notices this year than in 2017. More than 9,500 homeowners would be in danger of losing their homes. The problem is even worse in surrounding counties.

Funding was not always a problem. From 2008 to 2011, funding was provided through the state budget. Then the attorney general’s office, armed with bank settlement money, assumed that role, providing $20 million a year.

But new state and federal rules prohibit such funds from going directly to organizations representing individuals. They must now go to the state’s general fund. Unless Albany acts, desperate homeowners — referred by courts, municipalities and even the state — will have nowhere to turn.

Now that bank settlement revenue has dried up, the state must reclaim this program. It’s a smart investment.

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