As part of Fair Housing Month, Rockland County hosted its annual Fair Housing Summit Tuesday at Patriot Hills in Stony Point. The day included a number of talks about different fair housing issues, including a discussion by Bryan Greene, federal Housing & Urban Development (HUD) deputy general assistant secretary.
“My major concern is that we don’t have justice,” said Stella Marrs, of the county’s Human Rights Commission. “We have children that are homeless who can’t get into schools because the schools won’t allow them to enroll. There are some people that don’t give a damn, and some people who just don’t know what’s going on.”
Marrs spoke in a part of the program titled “Invisible Pockets of Housing,” where she talked about how people in the county choose what they see, and usually that doesn’t include the poor and people struggling. She said to fix it they must first make the invisible visible by reaching out and helping.
“For the record, all poor people are not criminals, all poor people are not filthy, all poor people are not lazy, all poor people are not lazy, all poor people just want to rise above poverty,” she said. “All they need is a helping hand to move into rebuilding the community. It’s a moral thing.”
Greene was the main speaker of the day, coming up from Washington to talk about President Barack Obama’s “Making Homes Affordable” initiative, which he said the Department of Treasury oversees. Greene said the effort contains a variety of different programs intended to help struggling homeowners and the many issues they face, such as mortgage modifications, interest rate reductions and more.
While the program was called the Rockland Housing Summit, he said “Making Homes Affordable” is a federal program, and thus applicable to Westchester as well.
The two most used programs in the initiative are Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) and Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP). HAMP, Greene said, has been used by more than a million homeowners in about two years, and its primary goal is to reduce monthly payments. That’s done usually through interest rate reductions and extension of the term of the mortgage. HARP is available for refinances of existing Fannie and Freddie loans.
Greene also spoke a bit about what HUD does in terms of fair housing, such as working with organizations to look into claims of housing discrimination. As lending organizations have grown more cautious of giving out money, Greene said HUD has found some discriminatory trends.
“It’s interesting because we’re seeing groups in the past that were not traditional victims of lending discrimination now coming into the clutches of that. One of the issues that we’ve been dealing with for a couple of years now has discrimination against women, specifically women who are on maternity leave,” Greene said. “So lenders who have said that they’re going to be more prudent about making loans now have even decided that women who are on temporary leave, in some instances paid leave, may not give good credit risk because they’re not sure looking at Fannie and Freddie guidelines whether they are likely to continue working. This wasn’t a problem before, but now they’re looking at guidelines and trying to be careful, and as a result have decided in instances that women are a bad risk.”
He said they first became aware of the issue from a story in the New York Times in which a female doctor going on maternity leave was denied a loan because the lending agency wasn’t sure if she’d be returning to work. Greene said HUD reached out to her, she filed a complaint and was awarded $15,000 of relief. The lending agency then had to start a compensation fund for other women with HUD for $750,000.
Greene said another woman in Tennessee was told by a bank they’d only give her a loan if she cut her maternity leave short, returned to work and provided the bank with a pay stub to prove she was back working. HUD got her $14,000. Greene added that while HUD does receive individual complaints, they’re trying to “take on more work that transforms communities” and promote balanced and integrated housing patterns throughout the country. He said he can’t say how important it is for HUD to conduct their testing to find discriminatory housing practices.
He mentioned that just last week in Rockland a developer was caught turning away African Americans looking for housing. The building was the Burgundy Gardens, a 96-apartment building in Valley Cottage, which ended up costing the owners $150,000 in a compensation fund for people who suffered discrimination, $25,000 as a civil penalty and they must put in place a nondiscrimination policy, according to Reuters.
Greene also praised Rockland and the Westchester Residential Opportunities Fair Housing Group for working together and conducting tests to try and find other discriminatory housing practices.