March 25, 2020

Cut Short, UNHP Tax Program, Helped Bronxites File for Free

by UNHP

Despite the need to close our NYC Free Tax Prep Program on March 14th due to the rising health concerns from COVID 19, UNHP was able to assist 920 low-to moderate income Bronx residents to file their taxes for free and access on-site financial and affordable housing services. The IRS and NYS Department of Taxation ( Federal and State) recently announced a tax extension for filing, payments, and penalties until July 15, 2020. UNHP is hopeful that Free Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites will reopen before the deadline.

say something here
Tax time is many things at UNHP. It’s a busy time with a focus on delivering a high-quality program. It’s also a time to catch up with old friends, like Patricia and her grandson, meet new volunteers, reconnect with our partners and check in on our friends from Lifespire Adult Living!

There are always many moving pieces with UNHP’s Free Tax Preparation Program; the number of trained volunteers, coordination with our partners, school breaks, technology glitches, appropriate staffing, and the occasional snowstorm, to name a few. This year we managed to navigate all that, but we were not able to out navigate the Coronavirus.

On Saturday, March 14th, we reluctantly shut down the tax program due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in NYC and the US. Any hesitation was overwhelmed by the growing concern for the health of everyone—tax filers, staff, volunteers, and partners alike. As you can see from the pictures we share, we operate in close quarters. Our staff, full-time, seasonal and part-time, are continuing to work from home till mid-April and contacting the program users who had appointments. Thanks to remote phone service, UNHP can continue to answer our phones and provide information to Bronx residents on our remote services, tax filing information and connect them to local services for food and other basic services. UNHP is also tracking new developments with the economic stimulus – filing your taxes is an important component to receive this financial boost – UNHP wants to make sure people in the Bronx have access. (Note: Treasury Department has announced that those who would not normally file federal taxes, people on social security, for example, will receive the stimulus automatically and need not file)

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Student volunteers are the backbone of our program. UNHP works primarily with Fordham University and Manhattan College to recruit volunteers through their business schools. The College of Mt. Saint Vincent now offers a class with a volunteer component, so for the second year in a row, these students have been an important source of volunteers. Non-business school students also volunteer as do graduate students in Fordham’s IPED program. Volunteer tax preparers undergo about 12-15 hours of training before they volunteer and are certified by the IRS.

Even though our program was cut short, we are not short on gratitude to everyone who helped to make this year’s program a success; our partners, our program users, and our volunteers.

Partners

UNHP is grateful to our partner organizations that continue to support our tax program with additional services. This year, we were able to work with a Capital One Savings Champion who assisted tax filers with intake and opening bank accounts. Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union was also present to open bank accounts onsite. On March 11, we held a special homeowner clinic in partnership with the Legal Aid Society to help Bronx homeowners address delinquent mortgage payments and lien issues. NYC Tenant Support Unit was also on-site every Wednesday with eviction prevention services for tenants. Finally, POTS was always on hand to help clients access social services such as SNAP benefits and the food pantry.

As always, our tax program would not be possible without Ariva and Fordham Bedford Community Services (FBCS). FBCS houses the space where we are able to do our VITA Tax Program and provides numerous infrastructure and programmatic support during the tax season. Ariva, a leader in NYC free tax preparation, is our partner and the lead VITA agency for our tax prep program. Ariva also runs Ready to Rent, a free financial coaching program that helps NYC residents prepare to apply for affordable housing through one-on-one financial counseling. UNHP provided assistance at the tax site to housing seekers through enrollment in Housing Connect, NYC’s online affordable housing lottery. Housing Connect assistance coupled with Ariva’s Ready to Rent program helps apartment seekers identify and address credit issues and create complete and accurate applications.

hc and ready rent
In addition to offering free tax prep most Saturdays and Wednesdays, UNHP also offered enrollment in the NYC online affordable housing lottery, Housing Connect. Ariva, Ready to rent, a 1:1 financial counseling program was offered in conjunction with Housing Connect. This combination helps give applicants their best chance of obtaining an apartment if they are selected for the competitive lottery process.

UNHP and many of our partners listed here are still working remotely to assist Bronx residents. Please reach out to us at (718) 933-2539 or taxes@unhp.org if you need information or a referral. Pots continues to provide emergency food services at their Bronx location.

Volunteers

This year, UNHP was able to train 62 active volunteers who contributed over 700 hours of service! 40 of those 62 volunteers were certified as tax preparers and the remaining volunteers assisted at intake, greeting and Housing Connect enrollment.

Our volunteer base was very diverse in terms of school affiliation, background, and expertise. Most students were business majors, but many were not. This year we had a good number of bilingual volunteers – always helpful in our neighborhood where more than half of program users are Hispanic. Student volunteers came from Manhattan College, Fordham University, Mount Saint Vincent, and Baruch College. This marks the second year of Mount Saint Vincent’s participation through their service-learning class. 13 students were also returning volunteers who are now veterans of our tax program!

  • Manhattan College - 40 students trained and 19 active volunteers
  • Fordham University - 29 students trained and 26 active volunteers
  • College of Mount Saint Vincent - 12 students trained and 8 active volunteers
  • CUNY - 2 active volunteers, 1 from Queens College and another from Baruch College 1
  • Tax Pros -retired and working professionals with experience in accounting, finance and tax prep - 7 active volunteers

While most of our volunteers are students from local universities, we are grateful to our working and retired professionals who also volunteered their time to the tax program! Our adult volunteers also come from a wide range of backgrounds in accounting, finance, and tax preparation. In addition to preparing returns within the VITA income range, they were able to help tax filers whose income fell just outside the range using a Facilitated Self Assisted (FSA) VITA approved-software. We are thankful to our Tax Pros who were able to extend the benefits of free, professional tax preparation to low and moderate-income people just outside the VITA income limits.

adult volunteers
Meet our Tax Pros - they are not undergrad students, but still have a lot to offer in terms of expertise and skill to our Bronx neighbors! Top left, Peter, a retiree, worked most Wednesdays and completed 41 returns, the most of any volunteer. Lori volunteered last year and assisted with the FSA program. Raniel and Johanna are long time veterans of our tax program, both former UNHP staffers they volunteered their time and expertise to the program, providing a quality review of returns and assistance to volunteers. Jeremy is a bilingual IPED graduate student whose language skills were welcomed at intake. Brendan and Bill, both accounting and finance professionals, returned as tax volunteers and Maria, a retired admin assistant greeted clients and assisted at intake in English and Spanish.

Program Users

Although UNHP’s tax program had to be cut short we were able to assist 920 tax filers with their federal and state taxes. This includes 40 Facilitated Self-Assisted returns and 360 seniors. The majority of our filers are very low income, but due to the VITA income limits being raised this year ($45,000 for an individual and $64,000 for a family), we were able to serve a greater population of tax filers using the VITA software.

Senior Days

UNHP understands that traveling to our tax site at Refuge House may be difficult for some of our senior clients. That is why every year we set up tax services in the community rooms of our seniors’ affordable housing residences. This year, we had mobile dates in two low-income senior citizen developments: UNHP’s Rose Hill Apartments and Fordham Bedford Housing Corporations’ Serviam Campus. We served 41 seniors at Rosehill and 61 seniors at Serviam.

seniors
UNHP helped over 300 senior citizens file their tax for free this year. In addition to helping seniors at Refuge House, we also provided two days in the community rooms of senior affordable housing complexes, Fordham Bedford Housing Corporations’ Serviam Gardens and UNHP’s Rosehill Apartments.

#MoreThanTaxes 2020

Free, accurate and professional tax preparation services are our primary goal, but UNHP views the tax season as an opportunity to do #morethantaxes. Financial empowerment and education, links to other housing, and financial services and supports are available on-site during our tax program.

Here are some of the accomplishments from our launch on 1/15 to our close on 3/14:

  • Launched Tax Season with a January 15 Financial Fitness event offering a range of free services to over 50 attendees including, legal services, SNAP, Housing Connect, NYC Rent Freeze, Credit Union accounts.
  • Hosted a Homeowner Legal Clinic with Legal Services offering foreclosure prevention and real estate tax relief on March 11, 2020. 10 Bronx homeowners attended.
  • Provided over 206 affordable housing services to Bronx residents through Housing Connect and NYC Rent Freeze enrollment.
  • Our partner, Ariva, provided 1:1 financial counseling to 28 Bronx residents via Ready to Rent at UNHP’s tax site
  • UNHP hosted two Getting Ahead sessions and encouraged the participation of 18 program users in NTFP Getting Ahead personal finance classes
  • 4 Bronx tenants met with the eviction prevention specialist from NYC Tenant Support Unit
  • POTS was on-site most Wednesdays and provided SNAP enrollment and information to a steady stream of tax clients.

Thank you to everyone – partners, volunteers, staff and tax filers that make this program possible! Stay well friends and here’s hoping that we will be together again next tax season.

Volunteer and Program User Highlights

The UNHP Free Tax Prep program is in its 11th year and we’ve made many friends over that time. Here are a few highlights of volunteer and program user stories and pictures.


devon
Devon has been doing his taxes with UNHP since he was in high school! When we caught up with him this year, he was getting ready to start a new job with the US Post Office. Good luck, Devon and stay safe!
darious
Darius and his Mom are also long-time program participants. Darius was only 4 when we met him and now he’s in 3rd grade and as smart as ever- with a love for science and math. Mom works in healthcare.
maria
Maria is a tax program user turned volunteer! Fluent in English and Spanish and an experienced administrative assistant, Maria was a big help checking clients in at the door. Maria is a life-long Bronxite and a cancer survivor. “God gave me a second chance to be here - I want to be of service”
zena
Zena is a UNHP fave- client! Funny and wise, she enjoys sharing stories from her life. Born in Guayana, Zena lived in the Bronx for many years as a nurse. She’s lived in England, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, but says she likes the Bronx the best- “it has the food I like, and a mingling of peoples and cultures - I felt at home there” As Zena got older and had more health issues she reached out to the Department of Aging and was selected for a senior residence in Pound Ridge New York. She still comes to the Bronx for the important things - her doctors and UNHP free tax prep!
student volunteers
Here are some more pictures of our student volunteers. UNHP is nominating our best volunteers for recognition and everyone here is in the running! Clockwise: Ashley and Brian are both Freshmen at Manhattan College. They enrolled in the Arches program which creates smaller groups around their interests. The program has a community volunteering component and they both helped at intake. Bridget and Amy are juniors at the College of Mt. Saint Vincent and are both sociology majors. Enrolled in a service-learning class, they both trained as VITA tax preparers and overcame the first day jitters to become regular and reliable program volunteers. Aldo is also from Mt. St. Vincent and he assisted along with other classmates at intake. Aldo is bilingual in English and Spanish - making him a very valuable volunteer!
tax collage
Top Left: Francia and her daughter, were referred to us by a longtime UNHP client and family member. Francia has a story mixed with sadness and joy. She lived in the Philippines and was married to her husband, a US citizen. Her husband died before her daughter was born, but she was able to seek US citizenship and her petition was approved in 2019. She lives in the Bronx with her smart 1st grader, Yhsia, and works as a home health aide. Top right, Meet Maria and Jai, social work staff at a local senior citizen residence. They made our tax day possible - collecting paperwork from seniors so we could file their taxes in a separate area and reduce contact with these vulnerable seniors. Bottom pic: Brenda and Cheri. Brenda works for Ariva, and assits UNHP as a quality reveiwer. Here she’s pictured with Cheri, a longtime friend. Brenda’s good cheer and tax skills are a welcome addition to our program.





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