Policy Matters – February 2023

Eòghann Renfroe February 28, 2023

Welcome to the February edition of our newsletter, Policy Matters. In this edition we cover absent funding for foreclosure prevention, wins and misses in the Executive Budget, budget testimony on Human Services and Taxes, the launch of our Police Reform Project, and recognition for Empire Justice staff members. You can also read an archived version of the newsletter here.


Key Homeowner Protection Funding Missing from the Executive Budget

While this year’s Executive Budget includes a number of positive proposals, we are concerned that funding for the Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP) in entirely absent. This important program has been providing free legal assistance to New Yorkers to avoid foreclosure since 2012 and has already helped over 120,000 New Yorkers avoid homelessness, crushing debt, and displacement. Last year Governor Hochul included HOPP funding in the Executive Budget for the first time, and the final budget included a $15 million increase that brought overall funding for HOPP to $35 million, so its omission in this year’s Executive Budget is especially striking and must be addressed.

HOPP is New York State’s only homeowner retention program. It funds 89 non-profits providing housing counseling and legal services to distressed homeowners in every county of the state since 2012. More than 275,000 New York homeowners currently report being behind on their mortgage according to U.S. Census data, and that is not counting families facing tax foreclosure. The crisis has had a disproportionate impact on homeowners of color, with 16.8% of homeowners delinquent on their mortgages vs 5.8% of white homeowners delinquent at end of 2022. Statewide, 43% of HOPP clients are homeowners of color (and in NYC, that number jumps to 75%).

Following the spike in mortgage delinquencies due to COVID, last year funding for HOPP was increased to $35 million to tackle the issue – $20 million from the Governor in the Executive budget, plus a $15 million add-on from the Legislature. This year HOPP is seeking a total of $40 million in order to fully address the problem and keep New Yorkers in their homes.

These services are key across the state, including Governor Hochul’s home turf of Buffalo, which is why the Buffalo News editorial board has published an editorial in support of HOPP funding. Senior Attorney Kirsten Keefe also appeared on the Capitol Pressroom with David Lombardo on February 17 to discuss the crisis, and our push for Governor Hochul to include funding for HOPP in her 30-day amendments to the Executive Budget.


Executive Budget a Mixed Bag for Low Income New Yorkers

We’re in the thick of the budget season after Governor Hochul’s Executive Budget bills landed on February 1, following her State of the State address on January 10.

Despite the absence of HOPP funding, we were pleased to see that the Governor did include funding for the Disability Advocacy Program (DAP), which provides free legal assistance to disabled New Yorkers seeking federal SSI/SSD benefits; the Community Health Advocates (CHA), which provides free assistance, outreach, and education to New Yorkers navigating the complex health care system; and the Education Debt Consumer Assistance Program (EDCAP), which helps New Yorkers to manage and resolve issues with their student debt. We’re continuing to advocate for the Legislature to add their share to these programs in the upcoming one house bills.

We were also pleased to see proposals from the Governor to index the minimum wage to inflation, and to address the problem of benefits skimming, an issue we have been working on with colleagues from The Legal Aid Society in NYC, where scammers install a card reading device at point-of sale terminals to steal users’ account information, SNAP benefits, and cash assistance. When these benefits are stolen, they are not reimbursed, leaving vulnerable families with no income for food or the necessities of life.

Unfortunately, HOPP was not the only missed funding opportunity in the Executive Budget. Regular readers of Policy Matters will be very familiar with the longstanding underfunding of the shelter allowance and cash assistance grants for people on public benefits. There is not a single county in NYS where the current shelter allowance, which is what New Yorkers on public assistance receive to pay for housing, comes even close to the fair market rent – the county that comes closest is Chautauqua, where the $285 shelter allowance for a household of three with children comes to only 34.5% of the fair market rent of $826. In all other counties the shortfall is even greater. While we are very pleased to see the Governor’s investment in building new housing, that initiative on its own will not resolve the issue that the shelter allowance is not remotely sufficient to pay for housing for people on public assistance.

To push the Governor to include this as part of her housing package we partnered with The Legal Aid Society NYC and more than 60 other organizations to send a letter on January 31 calling on Governor Hochul to increase funding for the shelter allowance and cash assistance programs that have remained stagnant for decades. Empire Justice will also be releasing a report analyzing the problems with the current shelter allowance and cash assistance levels in March, so stay tuned to learn more.


Budget Testimony

If you’re in the mood for comprehensive, data-driven budget testimony, Empire Justice is here for you. Senior Staff Attorney and Statewide Coordinator of the Disability Advocacy Program (DAP) Emilia Sicilia delivered our Human Services Joint Budget Hearing Testimony on February 13, which covers:

  • Disability Advocacy Program (DAP) Funding: Increase the legislature’s funding for DAP by $500,000 and restore its previous $1.5 million add-on to the Executive Budget.
  • Kinship Legal Network Pilot Program: Allocate $8 million in the final budget to the Office of Children and Families to establish a Kinship Legal Network pilot program.
  • Rental Supplement Program: Expand and improve the Rental Supplement Program.
  • Shelter Allowance Increase: Increase the shelter allowance for people on public benefits to 100% of Fair Market Rent.
  • Basic Needs Grant Increase: Increase the basic needs grant to reflect inflation.
  • Benefits Skimming: Amend the governor’s proposal to more comprehensively address “skimming” of public benefits.
  • Repeal Public Assistance Resource Test: Repeal the public assistance resource test.
  • Managed Care Consumer Assistance Program (MCCAP): Invest a total of $2.767 million in the Managed Care Consumer Assistance Program (MCCAP) in the final budget.
  • Emergency Rental Assistance Program: Maintain current eviction prevention representation by continuing to fund the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program at $35 million in the final budget.

Our Director of Strategic Partnerships & CASH, Yversha Roman also submitted our Taxes Joint Budget Hearing Testimony on February 9, which urges the passage of the Working Families Tax Credit, which would combine and strengthen two existing refundable tax credits: the Empire State Child Credit (ESCC) and state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), creating one more inclusive and generous Working Families Tax Credit (WFTC). It is estimated that enacting this tax credit would result in a 13.4% reduction in children under the age of 18 living in poverty, with a 19.6% reduction for those under 18 living in deep poverty. In the first few weeks of tax return preparation being done by our tax preparation program CASH (Creating Assets, Savings, and Hope) in Rochester, NY, we are already seeing approximately a 50% reduction in the average amount of federal returns for our clients.

We are also planning testimony for the upcoming Higher Education, Health, and Housing Joint Budget Committee hearings, which you’ll be able to find on our Policy Central page and on social media after each hearing. We will also share in our next edition of Policy Matters.


Stop the Stops

Empire Justice has launched our new Police Reform Project, which aims to promote equity, antiracism, and social justice within established criminal justice systems such as law enforcement departments and institutions of pre-trial incarceration. The Project’s first initiative was the release of a preliminary report called Stop the Stops: The Disparate Use and Impact of Police Pretext Stops on Individuals and Communities of Color.

A pretext stop is when a police officer stops a motorist, cyclist, or even a pedestrian, for a minor offense – like not having a bell on a bicycle or having something hanging from a car’s rear view mirror – when the real reason for the stop is something else.  The other reason may be a suspicion without enough of a legal basis that the person stopped has done something wrong, or another reason that would be illegal, like racial profiling. The types of offenses upon which these low-level Vehicle and Traffic Law violations are based do not involve enhancing safety.  These stops are often conducted in communities of color and are often directed against young Black men. Multiple studies reflect the racial disparities in who is subjected to pretext stops.

Our preliminary report:

  • Explains the law of pretext stops;
  • Reviews the studies that establish there are racial disparities in who gets stopped;
  • Addresses the harms to communities and individuals within the communities in which these stops are conducted;
  • Reviews whether there are benefits to a community when police engage in pretext stops;
  • Discusses pretext stops in the Greater Rochester, NY area; and
  • Reviews policies and laws implemented in other states, cities and communities to address the racial disparities in pretext stops.

The goals of this preliminary report are to educate the public, develop support for legal and policy changes we seek, and obtain your input to guide us in our preparation of a second report to be issued later this year. In light of these goals, we have also created short form versions of our preliminary report in both English and Spanish.


ATHENA Young Professional Award

Yversha Roman, Director of Strategic Partnerships & CASH, was a 2023 ATHENA Young Professional Award finalist, recognized by the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce Women’s Council. The ATHENA Young Professional Award program was founded in 2007 by ATHENA International to honor emerging women leaders who demonstrate excellence, creativity and initiative in their business or profession. Congratulations to Yversha on this well-deserved recognition!


NYS Bar Association Vanguard Award

Amy Schwartz-Wallace, Senior Attorney and Director of Training & Technical Assistance, was also honored recently, when she received the Vanguard Award from the NYS Bar Association in recognition of her work on the intersection of LGBTQ rights and domestic violence.

Amy organized the first LGBTQ roundtable meeting for legal services domestic violence advocates working with LGBTQ clients at the New York State Bar Association Partnership Conference more than 15 years ago. She provides legal training and technical assistance to attorneys, courts, LGBTQ+ groups, domestic violence programs and other agencies statewide. Amy has also been key both behind the scenes and in front on numerous pieces of public policy and legislation, including the Right to Call 911 bill which we successfully passed in 2019. This law now protects domestic violence and other crime victims from being evicted from their homes for calling the police when they are the victim of a crime. Congratulations to Amy on this well-deserved recognition!


Thank You For Reading

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If you need civil legal help, you can find contact information for each of our offices here.


The Empire Justice Policy Team