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New York State Legislature Westchester Delegation Testimony of Rachel Halperin, CEO Legal Services of The Hudson Valley February 16, 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;
  • Continued funding of the Westchester Housing and Kinship Caregiver Legal Services Project to address the housing crisis in Westchester County;
  • 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

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 urgent 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.  The eviction moratorium ended on January 15, 2022 and we are seeing a significant increase in residents seeking assistance in eviction cases.   In 2022, 7,475 eviction petitions were filed against County residents in Westchester.  More than half (56%) of cases handled in Westchester are housing matters.  Now that ERAP funds are exhausted and the portal is closed, it is more essential than ever for low-income tenants to have high-quality representation in eviction cases.  We are also seeing an increased need in public benefits advocacy to ensure assist families in obtaining emergency assistance and other government entitlements to stabilize their households.

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, 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 2023-2024 New York State Budget. 

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 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, 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. 

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 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.

Thank you for your consideration, attention and continued support.