Everyone Should be Told of Homeowner Assistance on 311

by Gregory Lobo Jost

Foreclosures in the Bronx are on the rise. Many of the factors that contribute to these foreclosures are also increasing (i.e. interest rates, fuel prices, water and sewer costs, property taxes, sub-prime and predatory lending, and the age of the local housing stock). In 2004, the foreclosure rate for one to four-family homes in Bronx Community Boards 5, 6, and 7 was double that of the city. The Bronx also has the highest percentage of homeowners (20 percent) with a severe affordability problem, meaning their owner costs are greater than 60 percent of their income. And the percentage is even higher (22 percent) for owners of conventional homes (excludes co-ops and condos).

University Neighborhood Housing Program (UNHP) has worked to help prevent foreclosures in the northwest Bronx for the past five years by reaching out to homeowners in distress and setting up a hotline where homeowners can be referred to appropriate services that may be able to help them avoid foreclosure. The phone number is 1-800-261-7012.

At a forum we held on April 25 at Fordham University, we discussed the city’s new pilot program to provide homeowner assistance on the 311 information and service hotline. The pilot, known as PACE, is the city’s way of supporting an existing successful network of anti-predatory lending groups that have been extremely active in Brooklyn and Queens – namely South Brooklyn Legal Services, the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, the Parodneck Foundation, and the Queens Legal Aid Society. Homeowners in distress who call 311 are routed to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), which assesses the situation and refers the homeowner to the appropriate group for assistance.

Since the program is still a pilot, targeted outreach is only being done in a few select neighborhoods where foreclosures are very high, namely southeast Queens, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick. Plans are to eventually expand the advertising and outreach to the North Shore of Staten Island and the northeast Bronx (while the northeast Bronx has more foreclosures than in the northwest Bronx, the foreclosure rate is actually about 40% higher here, where there are fewer houses). Of course, it is difficult to advertise in only select neighborhoods, especially when homeowners in foreclosure are bombarded with mail from all types of groups offering “assistance” or “foreclosure bailouts,” most of which are scams.

If homeowner assistance on 311 were expanded citywide, not only would this become a moot point — as advertising could expand to radio, television, newspapers and subways — but all New York City homeowners would be able to take advantage of this service. The biggest problem, however, would be the capacity on the part of the city and the nonprofit groups involved to handle the volume of calls.

Chicago provides an excellent example of how to overcome this obstacle. Since 2003, Chicago has provided 24-hour homeownership preservation and financial counseling on their 311 non-emergency number. This has been instituted citywide by utilizing an outside nonprofit phone-based counseling group known as the Credit Counseling Resource Center (CCRC). Many situations are resolved on the phone in just an hour or two, while more difficult situations are referred to local housing nonprofits. Chicago’s program has been an incredible success.

At the April forum, we made clear our hopes for homeowner assistance on 311 to come to the northwest Bronx and the entire city – under the current model, using the CCRC, or a combination of both. UNHP will work to make this happen in our follow-up with the city and other PACE groups. Even though HPD told us that right now homeowners anywhere in the city can call 311 for foreclosure prevention assistance, they won’t advertise this service outside of a few pilot neighborhoods. In the meantime, foreclosure rates here in our Bronx neighborhoods will most likely continue to climb.

Gregory Lobo Jost, a Norwood resident, is deputy director of the University Neighborhood Housing Program.