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New York State Legislature Westchester Delegation Testimony of Rachel Halperin, CEO Legal Services of The Hudson Valley February 10, 2023

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 ten offices; four of which are in Westchester County where 48% 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:

  • Maintaining the funding for Legal Representation for Eviction cases outside of New York City at the level proposed in the Governor’s Budget of $35 million, which enables tenants to avoid homelessness and maintain safe and affordable housing;
  • Restoration of funding for Civil Legal Services through the Legal Services Assistance Fund (LSAF) at the same level as in last year’s enacted budget;
  • Funding for the Homeowners Protection Program (HOPP), which will prevent foreclosures and zombie properties and will stabilize Westchester communities;
  • Restoration of funding for the Disability Advocacy Project at the same level as last year; and
  • Maintaining funding to LSHV’s Veteran’s and Military Families Project at the same level as last year, which provides legal services to veterans and their families in Westchester and the Hudson Valley.

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 2022 in Westchester, LSHV handled 6,238 cases, which impacted a total of 11,868 household members.

Of utmost importance this year is the continuation of funding for Legal Services for Eviction outside of New York City.  Last year, NYS made an historic investment in representation for tenants in eviction proceedings by allocating $35 million for civil legal services for tenants facing eviction outside of NYC.  Legal Services of the Hudson Valley was one of six organizations awarded this funding to defend tenants in the seven counties of the Hudson Valley who are facing eviction.

The Governor has included the $35 million in Legal Services for Eviction in the Executive Budget and we ask for your support that the final budget maintain this level of funding.  LSHV receives $7.8 million of this funding which it has used to expand its eviction prevention legal services throughout the seven counties in the Hudson Valley by adding 30 additional positions as well as subcontracting significant funding to the Hudson Valley Justice Center to serve undocumented tenants in the region.  

Also important this year is funding from the Legal Services Assistance Fund (LSAF), a critical funding stream for civil legal services programs. The Assembly Majority 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 servicesWith 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, and the Governor included a pot of just over $4 million for the Legislature to allocate for civil legal services. We ask that the civil legal services providers funded in last year’s budget be restored.

I also ask that you support funding the Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP)New York is continuing to see incredibly high delinquency rates, especially in communities of color.  According to U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey data, an average of 7.4% of New York homeowners with mortgages continued to be delinquent in 2022 (time period 12/29/21-10/17/22). This percentage represents approximately 288,261 New York families at risk of losing their homes. This rate is over three times the rate of 2.2% in January 2020, right before the COVID pandemic started, and well over the high of 3.8% in January 2009, during the height of the financial crisis and Great Recession. Even more alarming, in October 2022, an average 16.8% of Latino, Hispanic, Black and Asian homeowners reported being delinquent on their mortgages compared to 5.6% of white homeowners in NYS.

In July 2023, funding for HOPP runs out.  HOPP was cut entirely from the Governor’s Executive Budget.  Last year, $20 million was included in the Executive Budget and then the Legislature added $15 million, for a total of $35 million. $40 million is needed this year to meet the needs of NYS homeowners.

LSHV receives $1,092,956 annually in NYS Attorney General foreclosure prevention funding for the Hudson Valley and has provided legal services in 408 cases to homeowners in 2022.  Please support funding of $40 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. 

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 NYS 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 funds DAP at $5.3 million.  Last year both houses joined in a bi-partisan manner to add $3 million to the executive budget. LSHV receives $1,061,182 in DAP funding.   We ask that the Legislature add the $3 million this year as well.

Last year LSHV handled 589 cases program-wide and served 288 clients in Westchester County. This saved the County millions of dollars through federally funded dollars from SSI/SSD awards over the past few 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.

Finally, I ask you to support continued funding to support LSHV’s Veterans and Military Families Project which serves Westchester and Putnam Counties. 

There are 24,186 in Westchester County and 3,669 in Putnam County. Their needs include housing eviction and foreclosure prevention; family law; consumer law; debt reduction; bankruptcy; Veterans benefits; disability benefits; military discharge upgrades; military records corrections; employment law; and elder law issues, including wills, power of attorney, and healthcare proxies.

In last year’s budget, the Assembly included $180,000 to LSHV to provide essential civil legal services to veterans and their families in the Hudson Valley.  Last year, we handled 984 cases for veterans and military families in the Hudson Valley.

Thank you for your consideration, attention and continued support.