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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 T. Schneiderman to support free counseling and other foreclosure prevention efforts, the state said Monday.
The funding, part of $20 million announced statewide, comes from Schneiderman's Homeowner Protection Program, a commitment 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.
"We're thrilled, because it's going to allow us to continue to offer these services and retain the staff," said Sandy Becker, senior housing programs manager for Belmont Housing Resources for Western New York.
That money, coupled with a $15 million emergency grant from Schneiderman's office in April, is designed to prevent an interruption of the state-mandated foreclosure prevention services across New York, after the governor and lawmakers cut funding from the budget.
The state funding expired April 1, despite heavy lobbying across the state. The local agencies warned they would not be able to afford 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 $25 billion 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." More than $130 million of that was specifically for foreclosure prevention and similar efforts, and Schneiderman had earlier vowed to use that money to restore the budget cuts.
Delinquent mortgages and foreclosures continue to be a big problem in New York State, particularly on Long Island, in Brooklyn and Queens in New York City, and in the Hudson Valley, as well as in Erie County. Statewide, according to Federal Reserve Bank of New York data cited by Schneiderman, more than 140,000 mortgages are either in foreclosure or at least 90 days late in payments. According to a report this year from the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project in New York City, or NEDAP, 345,000 mortgages were in default or delinquent last year.
Locally, according to the Fed, there are nearly 2,000 active foreclosures in Erie County, while just under 8 percent of all active mortgages in Niagara County are either in foreclosure now or are at least 90 days behind. According to the advocacy group's study, Erie County last year had the sixth-highest level of foreclosures among the state's 62 counties, with 16,424 notices to borrowers. Areas that had among the highest concentration included not only Buffalo, but also Tonawanda, Hamburg and Williamsville.
"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," Shneiderman said in a news release. "This program puts homeowners first, and these organizations will help get our neighborhoods back on track."
Local recipients include Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Buffalo, the Buffalo Urban League, Belmont and West Side Neighborhood Housing Services for housing counseling, and the Western New York Law Center for legal services. The law center will subcontract to the Legal Aid Bureau and Legal Services for the Elderly, Disabled or Disadvantaged of Western New York.
"None of the agencies is going to get all the money that they need, but it is going to be a great help for us to continue doing the home ownership preservation counseling," said Beverly J. Moore, housing coordinator at Buffalo Urban League, who noted the geographic spread of the agencies "covers a great part of the clientele that we deal with."
Statewide, the announcement means 35 legal services organizations and 59 housing counseling agencies will get more than $16.1 million for free foreclosure prevention services, while another $3.9 million goes for training, technical assistance and other support services. The money will enable the agencies to help homeowners obtain loan modifications or other relief from lenders.
The organizations, which were chosen after a competitive application process, were notified in writing earlier this month and will sign contracts in early October to provide services, ensuring no disruption in services to homeowners, Schneiderman's release said. The exact amounts of each award are not being released until contracts are signed.
"Funding housing counseling and legal services is an essential first step to help more families stay in their homes and avoid foreclosure," he 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."
Rochester-based Empire Justice Center also will receive a portion of the $20 million total to serve as one of the state's two "anchor partners" in the program, helping with grant management and providing technical assistance and training for counselors and lawyers.
Under New York's comprehensive foreclosure prevention law, mortgage servicers must provide homeowners with a pre-foreclosure notice 90 days before they can begin proceedings. That notice must include a list of at least five nonprofit housing counseling agencies that can work with lenders to modify loans at foreclosure settlement conferences.
Those conferences are also mandated by state law as a last-ditch effort to avoid foreclosure, but the agencies needed funding to provide services.
According to Schneiderman, almost half of homeowners facing foreclosure haven't had a lawyer, and 63 percent of New Yorkers are not represented by a lawyer at the conferences.

email: jepstein@buffnews.com