The not-for-profit Western New York Law Center and the Erie County Clerk tap into data on pre-
foreclosure filings to protect homeowners at-risk of foreclosure
- A local not-for-profit and the Erie County (NY) Clerk’s office teamed up to track homeowners at-risk of foreclosure
- The Clerk’s office recognized the value of pre-foreclosure filing data as an early warning sign of housing insecurity and made changes to the way court records were tracked
- Using the BuildingBlocks platform, a local non-profit is alerted throughout the foreclosure process, enabling them to provide residents support to keep them in their homes
Western New York Law Center is a not-for-profit organization based in Buffalo, NY, that aims to provide low-income people with a full range of civil legal services, including “non-traditional” legal assistance like policy advocacy and legal education. One of WNYLC’s focus areas is housing, and the group works with homeowners facing foreclosure to ensure they receive proper legal representation and guidance. WNYLC played a critical role in helping the region’s homeowners in the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis, when banks initiated a record number of foreclosures stemming from sub-prime lending practices and a downturn in the housing market.
While some aid groups rely on referrals and grassroots networking to connect with vulnerable populations, WNYLC recognizes the need to take a more proactive approach. Getting information out to at-risk homeowners in a timely manner is crucial for the work that WNYLC does. When a mortgage goes unpaid for three months in New York State, a lender may file a Lis Pendens (also called a notice of mortgage default or pre-foreclosure notice) with the County Clerk’s office to initiate the foreclosure process. Getting information out to at-risk homeowners at this stage is crucial for the work that WNYLC does. During the 2008 Crisis, many people simply walked away from their homes upon receiving a Lis Pendens, unaware of the legal and financial resources available to keep them in their homes. Not only did this practice erase wealth and ruin credit, it also resulted in the proliferation of “Zombie Homes” when banks failed to assume legal ownership of these properties. (Learn more)
WNYLC was able to access Lis Pendens records online, but each filing was stored as a PDF, and it contained information on the mortgage grantor (the lender) and the grantee (the borrower), but not on the property address. This omission made outreach to homeowners time-consuming and difficult, if not impossible, in many cases. “As advocates, local governments need to understand the impact that their data can have,” said Kate Lockhart, Program Director of Vacant and Abandoned Property at the WNYLC. “And if that data is not managed and presented in the right way, it’s a wasted opportunity.”
When Michael P. Kearns was elected Erie County Clerk in 2017, he knew all-too-well the devastation that foreclosures could wreak on communities. He previously represented the 142nd NY State Assembly District, where he worked with Lockhart and WNYLC to hold banks accountable for Zombie Properties.
“The stressors are overwhelming right now, and you do not necessarily know what people are going through or when they are going through it. BuildingBlocks gives us the information we need to prevent the next housing crisis from devastating our community.”
Recognizing the value of including the property address in the Lis Pendens filing, Kearns amended the data entry process to ensure non-profits and local governments working with homeowners to prevent foreclosures would have access to the information they needed.
But having the address was just the first step in the process. Like many not-for-profits, WNYLC has limited resources, and outreach is expensive. Instead of simply sending a mailer to every address subject to a Lis Pendens filing, Lockhart wanted to have a deeper understanding of property, owner, and neighborhood conditions. Through a partnership with the County Clerk’s office and Tolemi, WNYLC launched a county-wide version of the BuildingBlocks application that brings together data on foreclosure records, tax assessment & delinquency, property sales & deed transfers, ownership, and more.
Looking at the intersection of data in BuildingBlocks helps Lockhart and her team target their outreach to citizens who may be facing foreclosure. Not only do they measure the extent of financial distress by looking at tax delinquency and foreclosure data, they can also distinguish between owner-occupants, small-scale landlords, and larger investor-owners of rental properties. Lockhart’s team can receive alerts when new Lis Pendens are filed, filter open filings by owner type and length of time since initial notice, and export lists pre-formatted for mail-merge.
“The stressors are overwhelming right now, and you do not necessarily know what people are going through or when they are going through it,“ says Lockhart. She emphasizes the importance of sending out multiple mailings at various times throughout the process, which requires regularly updated data from across different systems and agencies.