Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this year’s executive budget. My name is Rachel Halperin and I am the Chief Executive Officer of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV).
Thank you for your continued support of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV), the only provider of comprehensive, free civil legal services to low income and vulnerable individuals and families in Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, Ulster, Orange, Rockland and Sullivan Counties. LSHV has nine offices; four of which are in Westchester County where 45% of all clients served live.
LSHV represents your constituents facing life altering hardships because they have civil legal problems affecting the most fundamental aspects of their lives, but can’t afford an attorney and are not entitled to one without cost.
LSHV’s testimony today will focus on five key budgetary issues:
• Continued funding of the Westchester Housing and Kinship Caregiver Legal Services Project to address the housing crisis in Westchester County;
• Continued funding of the Survivors of Domestic Violence Legal Services Project in Rockland;
• Restoration in funding for Civil Legal Services through the Legal Services Assistance Fund (LSAF) at the same level as last year;
• Funding for the Homeowners Protection Program (HOPP), which will prevent foreclosures and zombie properties and will stabilize Westchester communities; and
• Restoration of funding for the Disability Advocacy Project at the same level as last year.
Civil legal services are the last line of defense for victims of domestic violence seeking safety and stability, families facing eviction or foreclosure, elderly victims of financial abuse seeking restitution, and parents seeking health care for their children. Redress, protection, security and stability is often available – only if one can navigate daunting legal systems against overwhelming odds. Few of us would attempt to resolve legal issues that put the roof over our head, our safety, or our children’s health at risk without the benefit of counsel and yet every day in Westchester County, thousands of poor and low income families are doing just that. The need for civil legal assistance in matters affecting the essentials of life for low-income families and individuals living at or below 200% of the federal poverty level in Westchester County is overwhelming, with 200,000 people eligible for LSHV’s assistance. In 2020 in Westchester, LSHV handled 5,278 cases, which impacted a total of 10,360 household members.
Of urgency this year is your continued support for the Westchester Housing and Kinship Caregiver Legal Services Project. Last year, the Legislature generously awarded Legal Services of the Hudson Valley $400,000 to provide eviction prevention services to residents at risk of becoming homeless. As we all know, we are bracing for a tsunami of evictions to hit our region when the federal and state legal protections for tenants expire later this year. In 2019, 9,344 eviction petitions filed against County families in the City Courts in Westchester. Post-pandemic filings this year will certainly balloon these numbers. It is more essential than ever for low-income tenants to have high-quality representation in eviction cases.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey data collected January 6-18, 2021 showed that 1 in 5 U.S. adult renters were behind on their rent. Westchester has 133,154 renter households which could translate to 26,630 households on the verge of eviction and homelessness. Without this essential funding, LSHV will be forced to reduce the number of housing attorneys in Westchester at the precise time that demand is skyrocketing.
In addition to serving the needs of County residents in housing court, Legal Services of the Hudson Valley has been a longtime provider of legal and advocacy services for kinship caregivers raising children in Westchester. Since the receipt of this funding last year, LSHV has strengthened its relationships with community-based organizations serving kinship caregivers – especially Family Services of Yonkers – to create a streamlined referral process for this population to access our services. We have assisted kinship caregivers in maintaining housing, obtaining entitlements, advanced planning and other civil legal needs. Examples of these cases included: assisting an 82-year-old grandmother with completing a parental designation form so that she could enroll her two teenage grandsons in school; representing a disabled grandparent kinship caregiver in an eviction proceeding while she was hospitalized which resulted in obtaining money for her to satisfy a judgment and remain stably housed in her apartment with her granddaughter; and assisting a young adult obtain custody of her three younger siblings and benefits when their mother unexpectedly died after an asthma attack.
Given the needs outlined above, Legal Services of the Hudson Valley is requesting the renewal of the $400,000 appropriation in the final 2021-2022 New York State Budget.
I also ask for your continued support of the Survivors of Domestic Violence Legal Project in Rockland County. Last year, through an allocation of $90,000, LSHV was able to provide specialized domestic violence legal services in our Spring Valley office in a range of family law and immigration legal services to victims of domestic violence, including: orders of protection, custody, visitation, child support, green cards, work permits, VAWA self-petitions, Battered Spouse Waivers, and U-Visas. Consequently in 2020, LSHV handled 146 cases for victims of domestic violence in Rockland County.
As you know, access to direct and extended legal representation for victims and survivors of domestic violence achieve safety and stability for themselves and their children. While the attorney hired with this funding handles family and immigration legal services, clients served by this attorney have access to the full range of comprehensive civil legal services offered by LSHV in areas such as housing, public benefits, consumer, disability, bankruptcy, health care, employment, family and immigration.
LSHV respectfully requests your continued support to secure funding of $90,000 to fund the Survivors of Domestic Violence Legal Services Project in Rockland.
I also ask of your continued support for funding from The Legal Services Assistance Fund (LSAF), a critical funding stream for civil legal services programs. The Legislature has long been a champion of legal services by supporting the Legal Services Assistance Fund which is used by programs statewide to provide representation in critical human needs. LSHV receives $151,667 from that fund which supports an elder law attorney and is responsible for the creation of our LGBTQ unit. Both serve severely isolated and underfunded low-income communities in need of civil legal services. With that funding LSHV handled cases in the areas of eviction prevention, disability benefits, elder law, and domestic violence.
Starting in 1992-93, the Legislature, through the leadership in the Assembly, has
allocated funding for civil legal services in the state budget. This funding was later
supported through the Legal Services Assistance Fund (LSAF) through the Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) and supported by a share of the revenue raised through payments for criminal records searches.
Through the joint efforts of the Assembly and Senate, these funds are now allocated each year for a variety of purposes, including Civil Legal Services and legal assistance for veterans and victims of domestic violence.
The LSAF is proposed in this year’s Executive Budget at $19,359,000, which is the same as last year’s budget but the civil legal services line has been reduced by $2.5 million. We request the Assembly to restore last year’s funding of civil legal services and redirect $2.5 million of LSAF revenue for its intended purpose—support of Assembly civil legal service programs, with budget language ensuring the same. The LSAF has been flat funded since its inception in 2010, despite increasing revenue. This revenue should be redirected to assist New Yorkers in need of assistance in matters relating to the essentials of life.
I also ask that you support funding the Homeowner Protection Program. New York is seeing the highest delinquency rate ever; as of the end of 2020, 11.8% (10,393,141) of New York homeowners were delinquent on their mortgage (according to US Census Household Pulse Survey data). This rate is over three times the last high of 3.8% in January 2009 at the height of the great recession; and over five times the delinquency rate of January 2020 of 2.2%. Once the foreclosure stay is lifted (April 30, 2021), we expect a flood of foreclosure filings.
In July 2021, funding for HOPP runs out. LSHV receives $644,300 annually in NYS Attorney General foreclosure prevention funding for the Hudson Valley and has provided legal services in 371 cases to homeowners in 2020. Foreclosure continues to be a big problem in NY State. In 2019, there were 10,869 new foreclosure case filings. Losing this funding would have a devastating impact on your constituents who are facing foreclosure and need legal assistance to save their homes. Please support funding of $20 million for this statewide innovative program which will take a holistic, regional approach in preventing foreclosures and zombie properties and will stabilize communities across the state.
Finally, I ask you to support the DAP – Disability Advocacy Project. This is a statewide, nationally recognized program that provides free legal assistance to low-income and disabled New Yorkers who have been denied Supplement Security Income and/or Social Security Disability (SSI/SSD) benefits and are forced to live on public assistance benefits. This program gets disability benefits for constituents and saves counties and state money because people are getting off state and local funded public assistance benefits and obtaining federal benefits. This is a win-win program that deserves your full support.
This year the governor’s executive budget once again funds DAP at $5.26 million. Last year both houses joined in a bi-partisan manner to add $3 million to the executive budget to fund DAP at $8.26 million. LSHV receives $558,493 in DAP funding. We are asking to be included in both the senate and assembly bills at the same level of $8.26 million level from last year so that we can maintain these cost-saving services to this vulnerable population.
Last year LSHV handled 623 cases program-wide and served 255 clients in Westchester County. This saved the County millions of dollars through federally funded dollars from SSI/SSD awards over past four years. We expect that a DAP budget letter will be circulated and I request that each of you sign onto that letter supporting the DAP program.
Thank you for your attention and continued support.