Photo: Shutterstock

New York state lawmakers formally moved Thursday to replenish funding this week for dozens of organizations that offer free housing and foreclosure prevention legal services for low-income individuals.

Both the Assembly and the Senate included the requested $20 million for those organizations in their individual state budget proposals this week, signaling their support for the funding after it was left out of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget plan in January.

It’s the first time in recent years lawmakers had to come up with state money for those organizations after they were largely funded by an infusion of cash from settlement dollars obtained by the New York Attorney General’s Office. They were previously funded and managed through New York State Homes and Community Renewal, the state’s housing agency, through 2011.

State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, D-Manhattan, and Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, D-Brooklyn, respectively, both supported the funding renewal for those organizations. They each chair their chambers’ respective housing committees.

Kavanagh attributed their concurring funding proposals to Democrats taking the majority in the state Senate this year for the first time in nearly a decade. They’ve had a firm majority in the Assembly for several years now.

“This is a different year in many respects, but I think one of the big differences this year is that we have an Assembly and a Senate who are on the same page pushing for progressive housing policy to make sure the state is doing its part to meet the needs of people to live in decent, affordable housing in stable communities across the state,” Kavanagh said.

Cymbrowitz held the same view, saying that parity between the majority of both houses of the Legislature has made many budget-related decisions an easier lift.

“With like minds in the Senate this year, we will have the opportunity to make significant progress toward alleviating the affordable housing crisis that exists for far too many New Yorkers,” Cymbrowitz said.

Communities First, the coalition of organizations that rely on state funding to offer free foreclosure prevention legal services, had rallied in Albany last month to call on lawmakers and Cuomo to include the requested $20 million in this year’s budget, which would fund them through the end of next March.

The remaining conflict, members of the coalition said in a joint statement Thursday, is with Cuomo, who has not indicated he will agree to include the funding as part of a final spending plan later this month. He didn’t add the funding to an amended version of his budget proposal in February after the coalition rallied in Albany and hasn’t signaled as of yet that he’s on board with the request.

“With the continuation of funding, nonprofits will be able to keep their doors open and provide the essential housing counseling and legal services that allows New Yorkers to keep their homes and stay in the communities they love,” the coalition said. “With the rising threats to homeownership that could lead to countless New Yorkers being displaced and financially ruined, we now look to Governor Cuomo to agree to help our homeowners and save hundreds of nonprofit jobs statewide.”

Of the 89 organizations that currently rely on state funding to offer those services, the coalition estimated that about two-thirds would have to immediately shut down next month if the renewed commitment isn’t included in this year’s state budget. The remaining groups have other funding streams to rely on.

Kavanagh said he’s optimistic about Cuomo’s commitment to the funding going forward after testimony from HCR Commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas in January indicated that her agency would work with the attorney general’s office to keep the program going.

“We will work with them to identify funding to allow that to continue,” Visnauskas said. “I think [the Division of Budget] is working with the attorney general’s office on that specifically.”

Representatives for Cuomo did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Legislature’s ask to approve $20 million for the coalition in this year’s budget.

There are still questions about how the program will be managed if the funding proposal is included in the final spending plan. Advocates proposed in February that the state move the program, now called the Homeowner Protection Program, back to HCR, rather than have it continue under the attorney general’s office.

Kavanagh said the Senate and Assembly one-house budget proposals don’t identify which part of state government would manage the program, but that the money would come from the state’s general fund, rather than from settlement funds collected by the attorney general’s office.

“There have been conversations about whether any settlement money or the mortgage insurance money is available for this but at this point, both houses are saying $20 million needs to be available,” Kavanagh said. “I think our resolution is not entirely specific about how the money will flow, but the principle reason it’s been under the attorney general’s auspices is because it’s been from settlements that they control.”

Cuomo and his top aides have been hesitant to favor any major spending increases this year after discovering an unforeseen drop in state revenue that they’ve attributed to the Republican tax law passed in late 2017. Earlier this week, members of his administration said President Donald Trump’s federal budget proposal is also expected to place additional strain on the state budget.

State Budget Director Robert Mujica said they still expect to agree to an on-time budget with the Legislature. That spending plan is due at the end of March.

READ MORE:

NY Foreclosure Legal Services in Jeopardy in Wake of Funding Cut Proposal, Advocates Say

Cuomo, NY Lawmakers Support Judiciary Budget Increase, Split on Judicial Conduct Commission

NY Lawmakers Release Budget Proposals Without Criminal Justice Reform as Talks Continue