Policy Matters – April 2021

Eòghann Renfroe April 28, 2021

Welcome to the April edition of our newsletter, Policy Matters. In this edition we cover the final State Budget, the overdue repeal of the welfare mortgage laws, new funding for the Tenant Defense Program, impact litigation defending school bus drivers, our fight against nursing home evictions, recognition for CASH, and the release of a new guide to benefits for non-parent caregivers. You can read an archived version here.


2021 State Budget Signals a More Fair and Equitable New York During Pandemic Recovery

The Budget season wrapped (only a week late!) and despite difficult financial straits due to COVID, resulted in a number of strong policy wins for low income New Yorkers. We are pleased that the hard work we put into our funding campaigns was successful, including:

  • A small increase in funding for the Consumer Health Advocates (CHA), which helps New Yorkers understand how to use and maximize their coverage, access needed services, reduce medical debts, and address unfair denials
  • Level funding for the Disability Advocacy Program (DAP), which helps disabled New Yorkers access federal SSI/SSD benefits.
  • Level funding for up to three years for the Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP), which help distressed homeowners avoid foreclosure.
  • Level funding for the Liberty Defense Project (LDP), which provides legal services to immigrant New Yorkers and helps immigrants facing unlawful detention, removal, or who are victims of trafficking.
  • Level funding for Legal Services Assistance Fund (LSAF) which provides funding for varied civil legal service needs for low income New Yorkers.

We are also pleased at the expansion of pre-kindergarten programs and capping of co-pays at 10% of family income above the poverty level, issues we’ve worked on for over a decade, and the long overdue repeal of welfare lien laws (more about that below).


New York Will No Longer “Lien” On Homeowners

Until the laws were repealed as part of the State Budget earlier this month, New York was the last state in the nation to require homeowners to give a mortgage on their homes in exchange for receiving welfare benefits, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and preventing very low-income people from achieving economic stability and security for decades.

Our Senior Benefits Attorney, Susan Antos, has worked on this issue for many years, and co-authored our 2013 report, Don’t Lien on Me: How New York’s Public Assistance Mortgages Undermine Homeownership and Financial Stability. She said, “This law placed an unfair hardship on divorced mothers with children, who may have had to rely on public assistance when their children were young and the fathers of their children failed to pay child support. Individuals who had been off public assistance for years have often found it impossible to refinance their mortgages or obtain home equity loans.”

The work isn’t over, however – existing liens were not addressed by the repeal, so there is more to do to ensure low income New Yorkers do not continue to feel the negative effects of this regressive practice.


Tenant Defense Program Lands New Funding in Rochester

One last State Budget victory – the Tenant Defense Program which combines all aspects of legal representation and advocacy in a single project for low-income people to cope with eviction and housing instability, received new funding as part of the upstate legal services coalition thanks to our Senators Sean Ryan, Jeremy Cooney, and Samra Brouk; Assemblymember Harry Bronson; and the entire Rochester delegation.

Our President & CEO, Kristin Brown, spoke at the April 23 press conference to announce the funding.


New Impact Litigation Filed on Behalf of School Bus Drivers

Empire Justice Center and the University at Buffalo School of Law COVID Law & Community Engagement Clinic have teamed up to represent school bus drivers and bus attendants at the Greece Central School District, in a suit against the NYS Department of Labor (DOL). These workers received unemployment benefits during the summer months, when they lost their summer jobs with the school district due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Department of Labor has now demanded repayment of the money they received.

“They followed the rules, they did everything right,” said Peter Dellinger, Employment Attorney, in an article about the case from the Democrat & Chronicle. “And then they get these notices saying, you owe us $8,000; you owe us $4,000.”

The lawsuit asserts violations of rights under Title III of the Social Security Act of 1935, 42 U.S.C. §§ 501-504, as well as Fourteenth Amendment substantive and procedural due process rights. The plaintiffs seek to bring the case as a class action, representing all summer school workers across the state who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and were later denied unemployment benefits.


Fighting Against Nursing Home Evictions

This touching and thorough article from The American Prospect, The Longest 80 Miles: How Nursing Home Evictions Tear Families Apart, chronicles the case of a woman, Marie Giardino, who has been fighting the eviction of her partner from a Rochester area nursing home with the help of Empire Justice’s Health team. Marie’s partner, Michaeljon Blue, while experiencing the worsening effects of dementia, was evicted from a local nursing home and moved to one 80 miles away from Marie and their community.

Nursing home evictions are the most common complaint received by the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, a federal program that advocates for the rights of nursing home residents. In the Rochester area, advocates began to notice high numbers of evictions of residents from nursing homes under the umbrella of the Hurlbut Care Communities consortium, and that all but one eviction notice resulted in residents being sent to the same facility, Hornell Gardens – including Marie’s partner, Michaeljon.

“[The law] doesn’t really target the central issue, unfortunately, which is that these involuntary transfers or discharges are from the business office,” Alexia Mickles, Health Attorney, told the American Prospect. “They’re business decisions. It doesn’t account for the medical needs of the residents.”

Marie is currently deciding whether to pursue another appeal of Michaeljon’s conviction. We will continue to work on the issue of nursing home evictions, along with other legal advocates.


Recognition for CASH

On April 23 our CASH program was recognized by U.S. Digital Response as an effective partner in delivering critical services during crises. Creating Assets Savings and Hope (CASH) is a community coalition of over 40 organizations, coordinated by Empire Justice Center, that provides financial services to low-income families in the Rochester area, including free tax prep and financial coaching.

CASH’s virtual tax service is still open until May 7 for those looking for help filing their taxes online – check out our CASH Online Tax Service for more information!


New Guide to Public Benefits for Non-Parent Caregivers

Public Benefits and Non-Parent Caregivers: A Review of Financial Support is a new resource from Empire Justice Center, the NYS Kinship Navigator, and the Catholic Family Center of Rochester, NY. This resource helps non-parent caregivers and their advocates to find information on child care subsidies, temporary assistance, Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, Supplemental Security Incomes (SSI), special rent subsidies, Medicaid, Child Health Plus, and many other programs that non-parent caregivers can access to get the financial support they need to make sure the children they care for are safe, fed, housed, healthy, and happy.


Legal Help Lines

Don’t forget! Our Long Island Immigration Legal Help Line is available every Tuesday from 2:00-4:00 pm, at 631-533-2238 to speak to an immigration attorney from Empire Justice Center who will answer your questions on your legal rights. You can also email us at EJCimmigrationhotline@gmail.com to make an appointment. ¡Se habla Español!

Our Unemployment and Paid Leave Legal Help Line is on temporary hold as we work through a considerable backlog, but check back as we anticipate opening up again soon.  


Thank You For Reading

If you’d like to keep up with our policy work, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, or visit the Policy Central page on our website.

You can find all of our COVID-19 free legal resources on our website, and if you need help, you can find contact information for each of our offices here.


The Empire Justice Policy Team