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Mortgage-Stressed Homeowners Ignoring Potential Assistance

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November 27, 2020

By Robert Kimmel–

Many Westchester homeowners, some seriously behind in their mortgage payments because of hardships imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, are failing to take advantage of available financial help from the county. The initial funding, part of the county’s “Blue Priority Homeowners Initiative,” totaled $2.5 million and was provided through the federal Cares Act. The program ends December 31.

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Based on accounts from two of the non-profit housing organizations with the authority to dispense the funding, almost $2 million was still unclaimed as of Thanksgiving. They say that only six homeowners had applied for money.

The county had anticipated helping up to 325 households, each with up to four months of mortgage payments. Homeowners seeking the relief from possible foreclosure on their homes were asked to indicate how COVID-19 hurt their ability to pay their mortgage. They were also required to show they had been up-to-date with mortgage payments as of March, 2020, when the pandemic hit. There are no income limits on households requesting the assistance. The mortgage payments, which is for primary residences only, go directly to the lenders.

Among the organizations authorized to process the funds is Community Housing Innovations, whose Executive Director, Alexander Roberts, had anticipated helping up to 60 families stay in their homes. Grant funding, he added, was also available to help with other missed housing-related expenses, such as taxes and insurance, as well as for up to four months of maintenance fees for owners of cooperative units and condominiums. Community Housing Innovations has the authority to process $600,000 of the available funds within the county.

One reason why delinquent homeowners have not sought the funding, he opined, is that they are “…feeling false comfort that they were offered forbearance under the federal Cares Act, meaning the payments they missed, plus interest are being deferred for the time being. But when that period ends,” he explained, “they will face higher payments in the future or a larger payment at the end of the mortgage loan.”

With Westchester’s Blue Priority Homeowners Initiative, Roberts said, “This funding is cash for up to four months of missed mortgage payments that never has to be paid back. And what’s unique, in my 30 years’ experience of administering tens of millions of dollars in grants by the state and federal government, is the fact that there are no maximum income requirements to qualify for these loans”  Applications for the assistance may be secured via a link on his organization’s website: www.communityhousing.org.

The Executive Director of another organization authorized to provide the funding, Marlene Zarfes of Westchester Residential Opportunities, Inc., stated, “This eviction program will be a lifesaver for so many county residents at risk of becoming homeless.”  She urged those in need to act immediately. Two other non-profits, Washingtonville Housing Alliance and Choice of New Rochelle, also offer assistance through the initiative.

Another Westchester County program concluding at the end of the year is the “Blue Small Business Landlord Initiative,” which designated $7.5 million, described by the county as earmarked to assist approximately 2,400 households “by working with their landlords and bringing their rent up-to-date.”  It is available for landlords who own between four and 20 units. It is also COVID-19 related and was designed to cover up to 75% of back rent for up to four months for landlords who can show that their tenants have not been able to pay their rent due to COVID-19. It is administered by the county’s Planning Department.

Two additional county programs, using federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding, are also aimed at offering aid to residents hurt financially because of the pandemic. The RED STOP Eviction Project provides up to four months of rental or utility arrears for tenants facing eviction or a shut off if they can demonstrate that their hardship is due to COVID. The same four housing non-profits that provide help for the Blue Priority Homeowners Initiative offer assistance with this project.

Additionally, a RED Rent HELP Program offers rental assistance for up to 12 months for families impacted by COVID, but it focuses on households where tenants had worked in industries closed by lockdowns, “or worked for a business that no longer exists.”  It is being run by the county’s Planning Department.

The Community Build Back Program was the name given the four projects collectively by County Executive George Latimer, when he announced their start-ups earlier this year, “to enable families to stay in their homes.”

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