Thursday, April 29, 2010

This Week's Forum South and West

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.”

Details Provided on Atlas Park Stabbing and Ridgewood Flashings

By Conor Greene

Details on several recent incidents, including an apparent stabbing at Atlas Park shopping center, another flashing incident in Ridgewood and arrests for pot smoking in Juniper Valley Park were provided to residents at last week’s COP 104 meeting in Maspeth.

Deputy Inspector Keith Green of the 104th Precinct informed residents that major crime is down about 1.5 percent so far this year. Through the first 17 weeks of 2010there have been 464 major crimes reported, down from 472 at the same time last year. In addition, overall arrests for all crimes are up 14 percent this year, thanks to big increases by the precinct’s patrol unit and detective bureau.

Green reported that there has been another incident in the Ridgewood area of a man exposing himself to young girls on their way to school. There were at least two incidents before Easter and the third occurred last week, all between approximately 7 and 8 a.m. in the vicinity of neighborhood schools. While the victims, who are between 9 and 11 years old, were unable to provide detailed descriptions of the suspect, he is believed to be a Hispanic man in his 20’s who drives a beige car.

A man was previously arrested for flashing incidents within the 104th Precinct, but officers have confirmed that the same individual isn’t responsible for the recent crimes. “We think that he is local and that we will get him soon,” said Green. Police later said the investigation is ongoing, with officers from the precinct and school safety squad dedicated to patrolling each morning along routes where children walk.

Green said the investigation into a stabbing at Glendale’s Atlas Park on a recent weekend was stymied when the victim refused to cooperate with responding officers. In response to concerns from local civic leaders, Green confirmed that an incident did occur at about 3 a.m. on April 17 during an event held at the mall’s Simply Fondue restaurant. “Something happened, but we don’t know all the details,” he said.

Police and ambulances were called after a 26-year-old man suffered an apparent stab wound, but the victim claimed he had fallen and refused to say what happened. “We think there was a fight,” said Green. “He doesn’t want to talk about it, and no witnesses came forward.” While the shopping center has a surveillance system, the attack wasn’t captured on tape. Since the victim didn’t confirm the incident, it was not classified as an assault in the precinct’s crime statistics.

The restaurant didn’t return a phone message seeking comment on the incident, and an e-mail sent to mall management wasn’t responded to. While there haven’t been problems at Simply Fondue in the past, police are now checking to make sure their new hours of operation and events are allowed under the terms of their liquor license. “This raised some red flags, so they’ll be getting some attention over the next few weeks since they changed the way they operate,” said a police source.

Green also reported that, acting on complaints from residents, police made 11 arrests for teenagers smoking marijuana in Juniper Valley Park. In three cases, additional charges were added for criminal possession of a weapon, he added, with the arrests taking place during afternoon and early evening hours.

So far this year, most major crime categories have remained pretty level with the same period last year, according to Green. There has been one homicide – the murder of a transgender woman in her Ridgewood apartment – which was quickly solved, compared with one unsolved homicide at this point last year. There have been three rapes so far, down from five, while robberies are level at 66. Despite a rough two-week period, auto thefts have remained relatively flat, with 99 so far compared to 94last year.

Burglaries, which Green said “are always a problem for us regardless of the time of year,” have dropped eight percent from 135 to 124. The precinct generally ranks among the highest in the city for burglaries reported, so “they are always a concern of ours, and we put a lot into reducing that,” added Green. He noted that a burglary pattern was closed out earlier this year and said there are no current patterns in the area.

While there has been a major spike in felony assaults, with 63 so far compared with 39 at this point last year, Green said the increase is partly due to new guidelines for what incidents are classified as such. He noted there have been 57 arrests among those incidents, a clearance rate he called “very high.” Grand larceny has dropped 14 percent to 109 so far this year.

Crime News: Drug Raid and Subway Robbery

Austin Street Home Raided in Drug Investigation

Four individuals were arrested after police executed a search warrant at an Austin Street home, according to police.

Following an investigation by the 104th Precinct’s Street Narcotics Enforcement Team, an apartment at 75-02 Austin Street in Forest Hills was raided at about 6 a.m. last Saturday. While the home is within the confines of the 112th Precinct, the investigation and arrests were conducted by the 104th Precinct.

Inside the home, officers found a “substantial amount” of drugs including marijuana, heroin and an assortment of prescription pills. In addition, an undisclosed amount of cash and drug paraphernalia was also recovered at the scene.

Arrested were: David Evan, who police say lived in the apartment, and Alexis Afflick of Manhattan, Robert Kane of East Brunswick, N.J., and Michael Caccavale of Baldwin. All were charged with felony possession of controlled substances, according to police.

Man Robbed Outside Subway Station

A man was robbed by armed gunmen while entering a Ridgewood subway station last week, police reported.

The victim was about to enter the subway station at Halsey Street and Wyckoff Avenue at about 10:30 a.m. on April 22 when he was approached by two black males, according to the 104th Precinct. One of the perps flashed a gun at the victim and forcibly removed his phone and money before fleeing the scene.

A search of the area was conducted by officers from the precinct and transit division, but the suspects were not located. The investigation is continuing.

Rail Company to Upgrade Equipment, Reduce Idling

Residents: Locomotives Need to be Replaced

By Conor Greene

Residents received some good news in their fight to change the way railroad companies operate in local neighborhoods - New York & Atlantic Railway has received a grant for new equipment to lower emissions and reduce engine idling on locomotives.

The rail company announced Tuesday that it has received a federal grant for the equipment upgrade, which it says will reduce engine idling on its eleven-unit fleet and is expected to lower its overall carbon footprint by about 35 percent. The entire upgrade, of which 80% is covered by the grant, will cost about $1 million, according to the company.

To reduce emissions and cut down on the need for locomotives to idle while parked along residential areas – an issue residents say has gotten much worse in the past year – the new equipment will keep water in the engines heated so it doesn’t fall below 38 degrees. That will replace the need to keep the trains idling while parked near homes in neighborhoods such as Maspeth, Glendale and Middle Village.

Still, residents who have raised issue with aspects of the rail operations including noise, emissions, overwhelming odors and security say not enough is being done to address the concerns. Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, called it a “very small step in addressing the quality of life problems” for residents living near the tracks.

“Lowering emissions on NYA locomotives by one third is fine, but what about CSX locomotives, which are the ones causing the problems in Middle Village?” wondered Holden, who said both CSX and NYA currently use the tracks that cut through Middle Village as a rail yard, with crews working on the trains as early as 4 a.m. “Finding a quick solution to this unbearable air and noise problem is our number one concerns. For residents, finally getting a good night’s sleep would be cause for a celebration.”

Mary Arnold, who co-founded the group Civics United for Railroad Environmental Solutions, pointed out that the locomotives have been used since 1978 and need to be repowered or replaced. “The U.S EPA has said that these vintage locomotives are being used where they do the most harm because of the population density in the city,” she said.

On a Facebook posting, the group also posted the following statement: “Better news would have been that the NY & Atlantic and the LIRR that owns the circa 1978 engines are replacing them with new ones, the way CSX did at Oak Point Yards. The U.S EPA has called these vintage locomotives the ‘low hanging fruit’ of rail emissions reduction in NYC and went on record in 2009 to say that they need to be repowered.”