New York City’s legal community has a long and storied history of pro bono service, and as our administration works to meet the challenges that have emerged from the national recession, we are capitalizing on that great tradition, and expanding upon it.
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the “Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act,” creating new volunteer opportunities for Americans and challenging us all to do more in service to our nation.
In response, we created NYC Service, a comprehensive effort to leverage the power of volunteering to tackle some of our toughest problems, including the risk of home foreclosure.
While New York City has been far less affected by the foreclosure crisis than most other cities, we have not escaped it. In 2009, there were over 20,000 foreclosure filings in the five boroughs, up from approximately 14,000 in 2007 and 2008, and fewer than 7,000 in 2004. And unfortunately, 2010 may bring another year of too-high foreclosure rates.
Housing foreclosures that lead to abandonment can threaten the health and stability of neighborhoods, a lesson New York City learned all too painfully in the 1970s. We are fully determined to avoid a repeat of that era, and so we have launched the most ambitious anti-foreclosure effort of any city in the country.
As part of this initiative, our Department of Housing Preservation and Development is developing a $10 million loan fund that will help homeowners who need a little extra support to qualify for mortgage modifications.
Our Office of Financial Empowerment, which helps families to endure these difficult times and start saving for the future, is now partnering with a non-profit organization to extend foreclosure-prevention efforts in targeted areas of Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens.
The Center for New York City Neighborhoods, which our administration and the City Council founded and which has already aided some 6,800 homeowners, continues to help families across the city head off foreclosure.
And in March, we kicked off our latest initiative, NYC Service Legal Outreach, a new effort to capitalize on our city’s great pro bono tradition by tapping lawyers to share their legal expertise with New Yorkers at risk of home foreclosure.
The program has been made possible because of a new state law that we helped pass last year that requires settlement conferences (meetings between the homeowner and the bank where alternatives to foreclosure are negotiated) to occur before a foreclosure can proceed.
Settlement conferences present valuable opportunities to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, and homeowners who are supported in these proceedings with legal advice have a more informed understanding of their options and obligations. That’s why NYC Service Legal Outreach is focused on providing homeowners with legal assistance during this mandatory settlement conference stage.
Our legal outreach program aims to recruit a total of 300 attorneys to work with partner organizations—Pro Bono Net, Legal Services NYC, the Legal Aid Society, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the City Bar Justice Center, and the Center for New York City Neighborhoods—in two important ways.
First, 100 volunteer attorneys will serve as clinic practitioners, stationed at courthouses to screen homeowners and provide them critical counsel based on their individual situations. These screeners will also assist families in attaining appropriate free legal representation, and may also provide limited advice and counsel to homeowners wishing to represent themselves.
Clinic practitioners will participate in one day of training and a minimum of two days volunteering at courthouses. With just 100 volunteer practitioners giving a collective 200 days of service, an estimated 2,000 households will be served.
The second service opportunity for attorneys is to provide individual homeowners with settlement conference representation. Two hundred volunteer attorneys will advocate for individual homeowners throughout the foreclosure settlement process. This role requires a larger time commitment, including a day of training and numerous court appearances over a period of months.
The volunteer training is an important design component of NYC Service Legal Outreach, and volunteer attorneys do not need to be experts in real estate law. We just need lawyers who can devote some time to work that, quite literally, could change lives for the better.
To participate in this significant program, please call 311 or visit our Web site, www.nyc.gov/service.
Losing a home is devastating to families, and their communities often suffer as well. But by capitalizing on the spirit of public service that defines our legal community, a spirit that has endured throughout New York City’s legal history, we can help keep families in their homes, help keep our neighborhoods strong, and help keep our city moving forward.
Michael R. Bloomberg is Mayor of the City of New York.