Thursday, April 29, 2010

Supreme Help for Struggling Homeowners

Program Aims for Settlements With Lenders

By Patricia Adams

As a skyrocketing total of foreclosure motions continue to mount throughout Queens County, homeowners are finding help at one Queens County Courthouse. A pilot program to address record high numbers of foreclosures in the borough was first introduced by former Justice Judith Kaye back in October 2008.

Between January 2005 and June of 2008, New York State foreclosure filings showed an increase of about 150% while Queens’s foreclosures soared to 223% during the same period. That dramatic increase is attributed largely to the borough’s high concentration of owner-occupied, one-to-four-family residential properties.

The Residential Foreclosure Program was implemented to promote early court intervention and reduce the time, expense and potential losses involved in foreclosures. Since its inception, a total of 4,951 conferences between homeowners and lenders have been held by the court with the program providing greater efficiency in case resolution and better outcomes for both homeowners and lenders.

In the period from October 2008 through October 2009, 1800 conferences were held and from November 2009 through the present, the number spiked to over 3000 conferences. In fact, out of the 24,330 cases to come before the Queens Supreme Court, more than 7,500 were foreclosure actions--more than 30% of the total case load.

Despite a dramatic increase in conferences already held during the program’s second year, there are still many homeowners who fail to utilize the cost free services available to them through the court.

According to Justice Jeremy Weinstein, Administrative Judge for Civil Matters in Queens County, the single largest reason that people fail to take advantage of the court’s program is fear. “Many people are afraid to come to the court,” explains Judge Weinstein. “They actually think that when they come here we are going to take their keys and take their home away from them,” a notion that Weinstein says is understandable but totally unfounded. “This program was designed with the intention of exploring every available option for homeowners to keep their homes and satisfy their obligations to the bank.”

And indeed the process does provide every viable avenue to investigate all financial and practical options open to home buyers. Under the auspices of Justice Weinstein and Program Administrator for Queens County Foreclosure Conference Part, Tracy Catapano-Fox, every homeowner is scheduled for a settlement conference with their respective lenders and a consultation with a counselor from Housing and Family Services. Special attention has even been given to the forms and letters of explanation sent to homeowners after an action has commenced.

“It’s important that we do everything we can to take the fear out of the process. We’ve got to make the homeowners comfortable so that they can get the help they need,” said Weinstein.

Fear of the court is joined by other factors that keep homeowners from attending scheduled conferences. “In many cases people facing foreclosure proceedings are also facing other overwhelming debt,” explains Tracy Catapano-Fox. “They have a sense that there is no hope for them. We’re here to show them that is not true.”

In addition, Catapano-Fox says that many homeowners are falling victim to scam artists who solicit unknowing homeowners to contract their services. “They [scammers] promise to resolve the homeowners problems for a fee and essentially they take the money and run.” At that point the homeowner is left in more debt and with less time to legitimately resolve their issues. For those cases where a settlement is not possible the lender and the borrower are assisted in developing a streamlined plan to avoid delays.

When the program began about 16 months ago, conferences were being held two days a week only on a morning calendar. Now that the State legislature mandates a conference for all foreclosure proceedings, the courthouse calendar has expanded to five days a week, for the full day.

An increased demand for physical space to house different components of the program has necessitated many creative solutions including the transformation of a utility closet to office space. “We’re forced to work with what we have,” said Catapano-Fox, “and we’re adding what we can with what we have.” One of the additions she refers to is two extra judges to try and handle the case load which is expected to increase to more than 800 conferences a month.

Of the total conferences held since the program began, about 13% of the cases have been settled-- enabling nearly 700 families able to keep their homes. The goal of the program administrators is to continue to help homeowners with the process and obviously to keep as many in their homes as possible.

Justice Augustus Agate, recently added to the roster of the foreclosure team says a very important objective is to raise awareness among homeowners. “The more people know about their situation, the easier it is for them to get the best help available to them,” says Agate.

And among everyone working in the conference program there is a consensus that a homeowner who knows their rights and has an accurate estimation of personal and financial circumstances is an important component of the process. According to Justice Agate, “It’s all part of keeping people in their homes and keeping their neighborhoods strong.”

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