Volunteer Lawyers Project hosts legal clinic for Brooklyn homeowners in tax trouble

July 2, 2019 Rob Abruzzese
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The Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) recently partnered with the Bridge Street Development Corporation to host a legal clinic in Bedford-Stuyvesant to help homeowners who have fallen behind on property taxes and other bills to avoid tax liens that could cost them their homes.

“New York City has an annual tax lien sale every summer,” said Sarah Filcher, VLP senior staff attorney. “This year’s sale is August 2. Homeowners are given a 90-day notice, a 60-day notice, a 30-day notice and then a 10-day notice. Then they sell the lien on the house due to unpaid property taxes, water debt or other charges which can lead to them quickly losing their homes.”

Volunteer attorneys from the VLP and American International Group (AIG) teamed with employees from the development corporation and the New York City Department of Finance on Monday, June 24 to help struggling homeowners apply for programs that can either reduce their tax bills or qualify them for exemptions.

Volunteer lawyers from VLP and AIG and staff members from the Department of Finance and the Bridge Street Development Corporation were on hand to help out at the clinic.

“We’re trying to help homeowners that have a property tax liability issue to apply for an exemption so that they can be removed from the sale, get a temporary forbearance due to a death in the family or other circumstances, or we’re helping them apply for an installment agreement,” Filcher said.

Bridge Street’s Senior Program Director Imelba Rodriguez began working with the development corporation over a decade ago. She explained that many people facing these issues often own their homes outright and have forgotten to pay their taxes, or that life issues cause them to miss payments and they are in danger of losing their homes despite having thousands of dollars in home equity.

“We used to door-knock to let people know what was going on because many times they had no idea,” Rodriguez said. “We asked the VLP to come in and help us because this clinic will help people keep their homes. That’s the goal — we want to save homes.”

Filcher, who focuses on foreclosures with the VLP, explained that approximately 40 percent of the foreclosures in Brooklyn she handles comes from two zip codes, which is why they decided to host the clinic in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

“This is needed in Brooklyn,” Filcher said. “There are still 7,000 homes on the 60-day notice list and over 9,000 homes on the 90-day notice list. Unfortunately, the clients we see as the tax sale comes around are people who typically owe less than $10,000 or $20,000 in unpaid property taxes. If the tax lien is sold, it can go to foreclosure in as little as six months.”

The clinic was busy for about two hours on Monday. There are no immediate plans to host another clinic, but everyone involved was optimistic that this wouldn’t be the last.

Even if a family avoids having their home foreclosed on them, having the tax lien sold makes it exponentially more expensive to keep it. Many long-time residents even elect to sell their homes to speculators once they find themselves in trouble when they wouldn’t otherwise.

“Once that tax lien gets sold, it just gets more and more expensive to keep the home from being sold,” she said. “This is the time to prevent the foreclosure, before the tax lien is even sold.”

This was the first time that such a clinic has been hosted by either group. Both sides expressed a desire to host more in the future. There were 20 people who initially RSVP’d for the event, but many more walked in off the street to get help filling out a two-page application that can help.

The VLP held a training program for attorneys prior to the clinic so that they were aware of how to fill out the paperwork and what programs are available to struggling homeowners.

“We’re helping people understand how to reduce their liability or to qualify for exemption,” Filcher said. “Older adults, adults with disabilities, active duty military, gold-star parents or veterans — those are the folks we can get off the tax lien sale immediately with two-page applications that most of these homeowners have never heard of before.”

Greta Spencer John, who owns a home in the neighborhood, said that she walked in off the street after she got an email from Bridge Street about the clinic. She had an issue with her water bill that a volunteer attorney was able to help her with on the spot.

“It turns out that I don’t owe any money, but it’s a load off my shoulders to have someone knowledgeable here who was able to answer my questions and help me to figure out exactly what’s going on,” Spencer John said. “Just because you own a home doesn’t mean that you know how to figure out these complicated issues. It was intimidating, but now I’m free and clear and I’m probably going to skip home.”

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