March 16, 2018

So Far So Good – UNHP Bronx Free Tax Program on Track for Success!

by UNHP

With 13 UNHP Free Tax Preparation days behind us, 1,000 tax filers assisted and seven more service days in front of us, UNHP can proudly say that we are meeting, and possibly exceeding, our goals for our 2018 program. The primary goal of the UNHP Free Tax Preparation Program is to provide free, professional, and accurate tax return filings for low-income individuals and families in our community. The UNHP program, offered in partnership with Fordham Bedford Community Services and Ariva, is more than just taxes.

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The UNHP Free Tax Preparation program assists both new and returning tax filers. From top left: Zena takes two buses to the UNHP site at Refuge House ” because the people are nice.” She is pictured here with two “nice” and smart Manhattan College volunteers. The residents of Lifespire come year after year to file their taxes with UNHP and the Serviam Seniors came by van to get a jump on their tax returns. A bilingual Lehman College intern, Claudette, assists new clients to process their intake forms prior to tax filing.

Tax season is the time of year when UNHP will meet face to face with over 1,200 neighborhood residents and an opportunity to check-in on neighborhood issues, provide housing and financial information, schedule appointments for our Northwest Bronx Resource Center (NWBRC) services and provide on-the-spot assistance for SNAP enrollment, low-cost bank accounts, credit reports, and enrollment in the NYC Rent Freeze and Housing Connect. UNHP also capitalizes on the increased resident contact by hosting special events like the Housing Connect-A-Thon and Financial Fitness Event. Needless to say, we could not reach so many Bronx residents without the help of our partners, volunteers, and UNHP permanent and seasonal staff.

Volunteers and Staff

UNHP recruited and trained 88 students from local colleges. These volunteers, many from the Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business and Manhattan’s O’Malley Business School, undertake about 10 hours of online VITA certification training and then an additional 8 hours of classroom training at the Fordham Bedford Community Services Enterprise Heiskell Technology Center. 60 students have assisted on-site (13 of these student volunteers helped us last year, too!) and provided 631 volunteer hours to Bronx tax filers. In addition to our student volunteers, five adult volunteers provided a combined 76 hours of service to assist close to 40 tax filers self-prepare their returns using the United Way/H&R Block My Free Taxes site.

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Manhattan College and Fordham University students are the power behind the UNHP Free Tax Prep program. Over 80 students trained for tax preparation this year and so far 60 students have volunteered to help their Bronx neighbors with free, professional tax filings.

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In addition to our student volunteers, UNHP staff led by Jumelia, Director of the NWBRC and Raniel support the volunteer training efforts and the running of the tax site. Adult volunteers helped Bronx residents, who earned just a bit more than the VITA income limits, self-prepare their taxes for free and these two CUNY volunteers pictured on the bottom right are bilingual - a big help as many of our tax filers are Spanish speaking.

UNHP will see over 1,200 Bronxites face to face during taxes and work to use the opportunity to provide other services and information about financial and housing opportunities. Part of the Solution (POTS) attended the tax site located at FBCS’s Refuge House on Wednesdays and enrolled our interested tax clients into SNAP and provided information about other POTS services including access to their food pantry. Apple Bank for Savings was onsite providing information about low-cost bank accounts and financial products. UNHP offered information about our services at the Northwest Bronx Resource Center and enrolled interested tax filers in Housing Connect, the NYC Rent Freeze, pulled credit reports and made follow up appointments for 1:1 financial coaching.

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From top left: Noelia assists this Mom and her hungry son, Trey, apply for an affordable apartment through Housing Connect. Julissa from Apple Bank for Savings strikes a pose with Niki. Apple Bank was on-site during the tax season to provide information about low-cost banking options. Rose made an appointment to apply for the NYC Rent Freeze and we just learned that her application was accepted by the Department of Finance. Sandra from POTS was on-site most Wednesdays to assist tax filers to apply for SNAP and enroll in the POTS Food Pantry. POTS is a UNHP partner and its offices with daily community dining, social services, and a food pantry is located just a few blocks away from the tax site. Rent continues to take up larger and larger portions of Bronx incomes- leaving little left over for food and other basic necessities.

Given the affordability crisis in the Bronx, there is a high demand by rent-burdened tenants seeking more affordable units. In addition to enrolling tax clients into the NYC Affordable Housing Lottery at regularly scheduled appointments and during the tax days, UNHP held two special Housing Connect events, one during our January Financial Fitness Event and another at the UNHP Housing Connect-A-Thon with Fordham students volunteers. The students were participating in an Ignation Day of Service, honoring St Ignatius the founder of the Jesuits. The 12 students quickly learned how to use the online Housing Connect platform and assisted 29 Bronxites enroll in Housing Connect and another 5 senior citizens apply for Serviam Heights. Ariva, our VITA tax preparation partner also runs a program called Ready To Rent, financial counseling to assist prospective tenants to review their credit, household income and moving budget as part of the Housing Connect process. The Ready to Rent counselor was on-site during the Financial Fitness Event, the Housing Connect-A-Thon and again in March seeing a total of 25 Housing Connect enrollees.

Twelve Fordham student Ignation week volunteers staffed the UNHP Housing Connect-A Thon enrolling 29 Bronx residents in the NYC affordable housing lottery and 5 seniors apply for an NYCHA unit at Fordham Bedford housing Corporations’ Serviam, Heights. Gregory, a financial counselor from Ariva’s Ready to Rent program offered 1:1 financial counseling to Housing Connect enrollees.
Twelve Fordham student Ignation week volunteers staffed the UNHP Housing Connect-A Thon on February 10th enrolling 29 Bronx residents in the NYC affordable housing lottery and assisting 5 seniors to apply for an NYCHA unit at Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation’s Serviam Heights. Ariva’s Ready To Rent Financial Counseling was an important part of the Housing Connect-A-Thon. Homeless shelters have referred shelter residents to UNHP for assistance enrolling in Housing Connect and those with some type of rental voucher stand the best chance for qualifying for the units.

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We are grateful to those tax filers who have been willing to share their stories with UNHP. From top left; Anna is a long-time client and hit it off with our Wednesday Site Manager from Ariva, Brenda, Zepheria came with her family of young adult and grade school daughters. She was able to increase her refund by letting her daughter who is the highest earner in the family file as head of household. Noel B. shared the good news that he improved his standing at the medical temp firm where he works and his income increased so much that he moved from using our VITA program to our self-preparation program and Andrea a retired hospital employee was thrilled that her NYC Rent Freeze came through thanks to UNHP. ” They (NYC Department of Finance) told me this is the rent you will pay forever - I used to worry how I could pay the rent after I retired, but now I can sleep at night.”

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As you can imagine – January thru April is a pretty intense time at UNHP. We do take some time to celebrate our volunteers and our dedicated staff. Last Saturday, March 17th, UNHP staff and volunteers enjoyed a Saint Patrick ’s Day luncheon and raffled off a prize to one of our faithful volunteers.Svetlana, pictured right top, is our long-time Saturday site manager from Ariva. We are grateful for her knowledge and her commitment to the program.

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