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Four Western New York housing counseling groups and three legal-services organizations will receive more than $1.1 million in funding from state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to support free counseling and other foreclosure prevention efforts, the state announced today.
The funding, part of $20 million announced statewide, comes from Schneiderman's Homeowner Protection Program, an initiative his office announced earlier this year. Its purpose is to provide $60 million over three years to fund free housing counseling and legal services for New Yorkers struggling to deal with their mortgages and stay in their homes.
That money, coupled with a $15 million emergency grant from Schneiderman's office in April, is designed to prevent an interruption of state-mandated foreclosure prevention services across New York, after Gov. Cuomo and lawmakers in Albany did not renew funding for the services in the current state budget.
The state funding expired April 1, despite heavy lobbying by consumer advocates and legal aid attorneys across the state for the past year. The local agencies warned that they would not be able to afford to offer the services after that date, and would have to lay off staff.
That's when Schneiderman stepped in, using some of the nearly $800 million that New York received from the national mortgage servicing settlement announced in February between the five largest mortgage servicing companies, the federal government and 49 states over alleged foreclosure abuses such as "robo-signing."
According to Federal Reserve Bank of New York data cited by Schneiderman, there are nearly 2,000 active foreclosures in Erie County, while just under 8 percent of all active mortgages in Niagara County are "seriously delinquent," which means they are either in foreclosure now or are at least 90 days late in payments.
"The rise in foreclosures in Western New York and across the state is troubling, but this isn't just a matter of numbers: each foreclosure represents a devastating loss for a family and a community," Schneiderman said in a press release. "This program puts homeowners first, and these organizations will help get our neighborhoods back on track."
The state did not immediately identify the recipient organizations in Western New York, who were chosen after a competitive application process.
The organizations were notified in writing earlier this month and will sign contracts in early October to provide services, ensuring no disruption in services to homeowners "who rely on these professionals as a lifeline during these very difficult negotiations," Schneiderman's release said.
"Funding housing counseling and legal services is an essential first step to help more families stay in their homes and avoid foreclosure," Schneiderman said. "As we continue to investigate the mortgage crisis that has hurt communities in every corner of this state, we must ensure that homeowners get the expert guidance and legal representation they need to protect their rights before it's too late."
The Rochester-based Empire Justice Center will receive a portion of the $20 million total for this year to serve as the state's "anchor partner" in the program, helping with grant management and providing technical assistance and training for counselors and lawyers.
The nonprofit legal services agency, which operates statewide and also has an Albany office, has a history of grant management for government programs, as well as training, technical assistance and support for housing counseling and legal services.
"Schneiderman is helping to level the playing field for homeowners who are struggling to stay in their homes," said Anne Erickson, president of Empire Justice. The "initiative comes at crucial time when past resources for housing counseling and legal services are drying up. Thanks to the attorney general's commitment, New Yorkers across the state will continue to have access to high quality advocates, which in turn, will greatly improve their chances at negotiating the preservation of their homes."
Under New York's comprehensive foreclosure prevention law, servicers must provide homeowners with a pre-foreclosure notice 90 days before they can begin foreclosure proceedings. That notice must include a list of at least five nonprofit housing counseling agencies that can help them work with lenders to obtain loan modifications at foreclosure settlement conferences.
Those conferences are also mandated by state law as a last-ditch effort to avoid foreclosure, but the agencies needed the funding to be able to provide these services. According to Schneiderman, almost half of homeowners facing foreclosure have had to deal with the process without an attorney and 63 percent of New Yorkers are not represented by legal counsel at settlement conferences.

email: jepstein@buffnews.com