By Center for NYC Neighborhoods

Rebuilding a life and home after Hurricane Sandy

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Linda Gold in her home - Rockaway, Queens

Linda Gold’s husband died the night of Hurricane Sandy trying to save their home from the storm. “I had lost my husband and my house was in ruins,” she says. Even while facing unimaginable loss, Gold was about to begin a nightmarish journey to try to rebuild her home and her life.

Gold, with her husband Richard, had saved for a decade to purchase their two-story, two-bedroom home in the Belle Harbor section of Rockaway, Queens in 1979. The house was just one block from the waterfront.

Over their years together in the home, she and her husband had weathered many storms, but Gold decided to stay with a friend in Brooklyn as Hurricane Sandy advanced toward the city in October 2012. Her husband made the fateful decision to stay behind to secure their house and help others.

While struggling with her grief from the loss of her husband, she was unsure how to cope with the challenge of rebuilding her home. “My husband had always paid the bills, taken care of the insurance, and those type of things,” Gold says.

The reconstruction of Gold’s home was halted mid-way through excavation of her basement due to a complication with a permit. Officials told her she might need to forfeit her basement apartment, which she depended on for income — without it, she would have surely be unable to pay her mortgage and possibly fall into foreclosure.

She turned to NYLAG, a partner in the Center for NYC Neighborhoods’ legal counseling program for homeowners affected by Sandy. The Center, in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations and partner organizations like NYLAG, has been the lead organization counseling homeowners whose houses were damaged by the storm. These services help homeowners secure construction assistance and overcome tough recovery challenges, including foreclosure, the need for temporary housing, and insurance. Over 3,500 cases have been resolved through the Center’s program for homeowners affected by Hurricane Sandy.

With help from her legal counselor at NYLAG and support from the Center, Gold won her appeal and obtained a special permit to kick-start the reconstruction of her home. “They helped me so much,” Gold says, praising in particular attorney William Friedman, who heads NYLAG’s Storm Response unit.

Gold praises the contractor and crew reworking the electricity in her house, repairing and repainting walls, and rebuilding her basement apartment from which she says she has lost approximately $30,000 in rental income over the years while the rebuild was in limbo.

But the challenges of rebuilding her life have left her undeterred. “I’m hopeful and optimistic, while still waiting to see the end of all this chaos,” she says.

To learn more about whether you’re in the floodplain, your flood risk and about flood insurance rates, go to FloodHelpNY.org

Read more about The Center for NYC Neighborhoods work, as well as more stories like Linda Gold’s on the Center’s Annual Report.

PHOTO:  In this photo, Linda Gold looks out her window of her home in the Rockaway, Queens borough of New York.

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Low-income NYC senior and disabled homeowners at risk of losing crucial benefits

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NYC senior homeowners need to reapply for tax exemptions

Tens of thousands of senior and disabled homeowners have less than three months to renew two tax exemptions that can save them hundreds of dollars each year.

The New York City Department of Finance has sent letters to 55,000 homeowners asking them to renew the exemptions by March 15, 2017.

Both the Senior Citizen Homeowner and Disability Homeowner exemptions provide crucial financial help for lower- and fixed-income senior and disabled homeowners who need to stay afloat in a city with rising housing costs. If eligible homeowners miss the deadline, they may be at risk of losing out on financial benefits that can keep them from losing their homes and being able to age in place.

Our research shows that there is a large number of New Yorkers who would be eligible for these tax exemptions but do not know about them or have been unable to access them.

Based on a study of two sample districts, less than half of eligible seniors were receiving the benefit in Brooklyn Community District 5 (including East New York, Cypress Hills, and New Lots); only about two-thirds were in Queens Community District 12 (including Jamaica, Hollis, St. Albans). Eligible households must have a combined income of $37,399 or below.

(Source: 2014 Housing and Vacancy Survey; NYC Dept. of Finance June 2016 property tax bills)

At the Center, we lead a Senior Homeowner Initiative funded by the New York City Council that aims to ensure elderly homeowners can age in place and remain in their homes. Over the next few months, we’ll be coordinating with DOF and our network of legal services and housing counseling agencies to help reach out to senior homeowners and community stakeholders to spread the word about the renewal process and assist applicants with the application.

March 15, 2017 is the deadline to renew AND apply for the first time to receive the tax exemptions.

SCHE Re-application forms are available here and বাঙালি | 中文| français | kreyòl ayisyen | 한국어 | русский | español

DHE Renewal Application form available here and বাঙালি | 中文 | français | kreyòl ayisyen | 한국어 | русский | español

Read FAQs from the Dept. of Finance here.

If you or someone you know needs assistance, please call our Homeowner Hub at 1-855-HOME-456.

(Source for chart: 2014 Housing and Vacancy Survey; NYC Dept. of Finance June 2016 property tax bills)

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The future of foreclosure relief after the end of Obama’s signature mortgage relief effort

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Network Partner Photos 255

Housing counselors and advocates worked late into the evening on Dec. 30, 2016, helping homeowners meet the midnight deadline to apply for the Obama administration’s signature foreclosure crisis era mortgage relief program.

Although it is not immediately clear how many homeowners beat the rush, what is clear is that the future of foreclosure assistance for homeowners looks much more fragmented as lenders and regulatory agencies announce new efforts and guidelines for filling the void being left by the end of Making Home Affordable and its Home Affordable Modification Program.

The programs themselves, however beneficial, were far from perfect.

As The Washington Post reported recently, HAMP failed to meet its ambitious stated goal of helping up to 4 million borrowers, falling short by about 2.4 million by the end of 2016. The program was also criticized for its complexity by lenders and by advocates who claimed lenders lost paperwork or mismanaged cases. Many homeowners had to seek the help of housing counselors and legal advocates to get their applications through.

The U.S. Department of Treasury also found that the large mortgage services receiving billions of dollars for participating in the program had flouted its rules by miscalculating homeowners’ income, wrongfully denying applications and more, according to an October 2016 report by the Office of the Special Inspector General of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the $700 billion taxpayer bailout.

Despite the program’s deficiencies, Making Home Affordable played a crucial role in helping to standardize best practices in loss mitigation across the industry. Before 2009 and the creation of these programs, “there was no standard approach among mortgage servicers or investors to assist homeowners who were making payments, but were at risk of becoming delinquent due to a financial hardship,” according to a white paper released in July by the U.S. Department of Treasury and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some housing counselors have called the period before HAMP and MHA were introduced as the “Wild West” of mortgage modifications.

So what happens now? For much of 2016, lenders and federal regulators were busy charting the future.

In their white paper in July, the U.S. Department of Treasury, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development identified five core principles for any effort to replace the Home Affordable Modification Program: Consumers should be able to easily access options; plans should be affordable; they should be sustainable; all terms should be made transparent; and there should be sufficient oversight and accountability for the process. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also agrees with these principles, highlighting their mortgage servicing rules as a way to keep banks in check.

In December, Fannie and Freddie Mac, taking their cue from that white paper, announced the “Flex Modification,” which would give eligible borrowers a 20% payment reduction, and would borrow from the Obama administration’s program.

The Mortgage Bankers Association, meanwhile, has been backing what it has called the “One Mod,” which would require less documentation and little to no underwriting. This could be a much simpler option for homeowners and lenders. It also offers what the association calls “deep payment relief” through a six-step waterfall proposal.

In spite of industry-wide improvements in mortgage modification standards and new options, in the absence of HAMP, homeowners will likely face uncertainty and confusion about what to do when they need help with their mortgages.

This means that housing counselors and legal advocates will be needed more than ever to help navigate the new options and processes, assess affordability, and work with servicers to get homeowners the financial relief they need to keep their homes.

After all, applying for HAMP when it existed often required the help of a counselor, as Christopher Pinto told the Journal News in a recent story.

“I tried on my own, and it didn’t work,” said the 60-year-old homeowner from White Plains, who got his mortgage payment reduced to $1,100 through the program with the assistance of a local housing organization. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”

Are you in need of foreclosure prevention help or do you know someone who is? Contact the Center’s Homeowner Hub at 855-HOME-456 to get connected to free, legal help from housing organizations across New York.

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What NYC’s tax lien sale means for affordable homeownership

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homes in NYC

We are pleased to join with our fellow members of the Coalition for Affordable Homes in releasing a new report that analyzes the unequal impact of New York City’s tax lien sale on homeowners.

The report, “Compounding Debt: Race, Affordability, and NYC’s Tax Lien Sale,” finds that the City is six times more likely to sell a lien on a home in a majority African American neighborhood than in a majority white neighborhood. Latino homeowners were two times more likely to have a lien sold on their home.

The report also documents how the tax lien sale feeds speculation and displacement.

Each year, thousands of homeowners who fall behind on their tax or water bills get placed on the City’s annual lien sale list. The City sells the outstanding debts to private investors who then turn around and add steep interest and fees. The initial debt can double in as little as a year, and failure to pay can lead to foreclosure.

Fortunately, this year the law authorizing the lien sale is up for renewal, which gives City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio an opportunity to make much-needed reforms to the lien sale and reorient the City’s tax collection policies toward affordable homeownership and housing preservation.

“We meet many older homeowners who are facing foreclosure because they cannot afford to pay the fees and interest that add up after a tax lien is sold,” said Samira Rajan, Executive Director of Grow Brooklyn.

“It is often too late to help our clients prevent the sale of liens by New York City to investors,” said Patricia Kerr, Director of Programs at Neighborhood Housing Services of Jamaica, Inc. “The fact is, when customers come to our offices they are usually in the late stages of their liens being sold by the City.”

Analyzing data between 2009 and 2016, the report found that homeowners who have their liens sold to private investors quickly find themselves saddled with ballooning debts, which can lead to foreclosure. Eastern Brooklyn and Southeast Queens — low-rise, predominantly black and Hispanic areas that contain some of the city’s last affordable neighborhoods — have been acutely affected by the sale.

These same neighborhoods were subject to immense wealth loss during the foreclosure crisis and have recently been targeted by speculators.

You can read the full report.

To see where liens were sold in 2016, go to our tracker.

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Coalition for Affordable Homes celebrates achievements of 1st year

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IMG_6061

A year ago, more than two dozen organizations proclaimed that New York City’s neighborhoods are the “bedrock of its success” as they set forth an ambitious agenda for protecting affordable homeownership.

The Coalition for Affordable Homes, as it named itself, aimed to leverage the collective strength of 26 organizations to influence policy in order to tackle the rising cost of housing, battle predatory lenders, speculators and investors, and to develop innovative strategies to preserve and expand affordable homeownership. In September 2015, the Coalition released a policy platform that included calling for preventing the displacement of low- and moderate-income homeowners; expanding downpayment assistance; implementing a community land trust; and supporting the Community Restoration Fund to purchase distressed notes.

In the past year, the Coalition has made strides toward achieving its policy goals.

At the end of June, the city became the first municipality in the country to purchase distressed mortgage notes directly from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the newly established Community Restoration Program. While the program initially bought 24 mortgages, the city plans to expand it as a new model for tackling foreclosures. Lawmakers at the state level also authorized the creation of a similar fund, but no money has been allocated for it so far.

This past spring, ahead of the city’s annual tax and water lien sale, the Coalition rallied to get homeowners off the list and to reorient the city’s tax enforcement toward affordable housing preservation. One big win was the support of Public Advocate Letitia James, who held a news conference to denounce the water lien sale as too burdensome on working homeowners.

“Every homeowner has a responsibility to pay their bills, but the punishment for late payment should not be selling the debt to private investors, who then charge high fees and force our working families into foreclosure,” James said in a statement at the time. “Rather than imposing additional fines and liens, we must focus on programs that educate homeowners about their responsibilities and their rights, including payment plans”

The Coalition also advocated for fair housing practices across race and class lines. For instance, in May, it organized a homeowner event in southeast Queens called “I Deserve A Fair Mortgage, Too!” that brought together residents and housing advocates to discuss the legacy of redlining, as well as current predatory lending practices.

The Coalition also worked on multiple fronts researching downpayment assistance, deed theft scams and anti-displacement initiatives, such as cease and desist legislation.

But, by far, the biggest accomplishment of the Coalition has been to raise the profile of affordable homeownership in a city that too often overlooks its role in helping communities thrive.

To learn more about the Coalition and its policy platform, go to CoalitionforAffordableHomes.org.

In the above image, a homeowner speaks at a news conference where Public Advocate Letitia James called for changes to to how water lien sales are handled by the city. Credit: Center for NYC Neighborhoods.

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How one couple lost their condo, but found a new home in the Bronx

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In this Friday, June 17, 2016, photo, Carmen Ramirez, and her husband, Ricardo Ramirez, embrace in their room at the Bronxwood Home for the Aged, in the Bronx borough of New York. A series of emergency expenses were enough to cost Carmen and Ricardo Ramirez their one-bedroom condominium in Washington Heights, a neighborhood close to the northern tip of Manhattan. Now a couple entering their golden years is out of their home and in an assisted-living facility. (AP Photo/Richard Drew) Carmen and Ricardo Ramirez had been living the American Dream of homeownership in Washington Heights when the recession interrupted it.

As recounted by The Associated Press in a recent story marking a decade since the housing crash, the couple had been managing the payments for the $299,000 adjustable-rate mortgage on their one-bedroom condominium in Upper Manhattan.

But the downturn and emergency expenses put their homeownership at grave risk in 2010.

That year, they had to shutter their steakhouse, a source of income. The next year, Ricardo fell, suffering a traumatic brain injury; Carmen suffered an injury to her leg and back in 2012. Their finances were further destabilized when funeral costs for her parents caused the couple to miss mortgage payments, “triggering fees for late payments that led to foreclosure,” the AP reported.

“Have you ever heard the saying, when it rains, it pours?” Carmen, 61, told the AP. “Well, it was one after the other with us.”

The couple was facing eviction from their condo when the New York City Consumer Affairs Department referred them to the Center for NYC Neighborhoods’ Housing Mobility program, which helps homeowners who can no longer afford to stay in their homes move to new housing. Since 2013, with support from the Mizuho USA Foundationthe program has helped more than 300 homeowners. The program combines one-on-one housing counseling, assistance in securing alternative housing, financial advice, relocation grants, and links homeowners to trusted realtors. Staff work closely with mortgage lenders to ensure that homeowners who are no longer able to retain their homes are released of further financial obligations.

“We are working with clients who face enormous challenges at the crossroads of the foreclosure crisis and New York City’s housing affordability crisis,” says Joseph Sant, Director of Homeowner Services at the Center. “Our goal is to help these families avoid homelessness, find affordable housing, and emerge with financial support as they close out a very difficult chapter in their lives.”

For Carmen and Ricardo Ramirez, that chapter in their life found a resolution in the Bronx.

Working with the Human Resource Administration’s Adult Protective Services, the Center’s Housing Mobility program staff was able to help the couple secure alternative housing at Bronxwood Assisted Living Residence just before an eviction order was executed by the Sheriff. The facility helped the couple to apply for an increase of their Social Security Income, so they could pay for all of their housing, food and care expenses.

The Housing Mobility Program also provided a one-time relocation grant of $500, and secured a $900 grant from Jarvie Commonweal Emergency Fund to help the couple as they worked to stabilize their finances.

But giving up their home did come at a cost: They lost the home equity they had built over the years.

“We got nothing back — except a tax bill,” Carmen told the AP.

That, as the AP reported, turns out to be the case for a “disproportionate number of minorities” who lost their homes in the aftermath of the housing crisis, and could have far-reaching consequences for wealth generation and racial divisions for generations.

PHOTO:  In this Friday, June 17, 2016, photo, Carmen Ramirez, and her husband, Ricardo Ramirez, embrace in their room at the Bronxwood Home for the Aged, in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

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How one New York homeowner triumphed over foreclosure

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Pamela Litzsey-Thomas

For Pamela Litzsey-Thomas, going into foreclosure on her Niagara Falls home was just another in a series of financial setbacks that included losing her job and getting inundated with medical bills after she was struck by a bus. “I just kept feeling like I was being slapped in the face,” she said.

But Litzsey-Thomas refused to give up the house where she lived with her young son, even as her attempts to get a loan modification were stymied. Like hundreds of homeowners across the state, help finally came in the form of the New York State Mortgage Assistance Program (NYS-MAP).

In 2014, the Office of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched NYS-MAP to keep families out of foreclosure. In less than three years of operation, the program has loaned $18 million to homeowners and prevented more than 650 foreclosures.

Litzsey-Thomas  secured a NYS-MAP loan in 2015 that helped her to reinstate her affordable mortgage after receiving help from Legal Services for the Elderly, Disabled or Disadvantaged of Western New York, Inc. LSED is a member of the New York State Attorney General’s Homeowner Protection Program, a network of over 85 organizations dedicated to providing homeowners with free, qualified mortgage assistance relief services across New York.

For Litzsey-Thomas, getting the NYS-MAP loan was transformational. “I can breathe again,” she said recently in a phone interview.

Her story is all too familiar among NYS-MAP recipients: one marked by personal and financial challenges that threatened to spin out of control.

After going out on medical leave that year because of a difficult pregnancy, she was laid off from her job upon returning to work in 2011; temporary jobs weren’t enough to patch together a sustainable income. Before she could get caught up, she was impossibly behind on her mortgage.

In June 2012, she fell into further financial difficulties when she was struck by a bus and had to undergo a series of intensive surgeries. Her physician told her she wouldn’t be able to go back to work. Her family’s income is now limited to her Department of Social Services benefits, but she is able to afford her mortgage and bills now. She now subsists off of her limited Department of Social Services benefits.

“When the MAP program came along, I was like, ‘Wow.’ I said, ‘Okay, that was my blessing, my godsend, after all my patience,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about where we are going to sleep. I don’t have to worry about that. I have weathered the storm.”

The Center for New York City Neighborhoods and the Empire Justice Center administered the NYS-MAP program, which is currently closed to applications.

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How to defeat the blight of ‘zombie homes’ in New York

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EastNY

Thousands of “zombie homes” continue to blight communities across New York, but housing advocates are praising the Assembly’s recent passage of legislation that would go a long way toward attacking the problem.

But some policy experts also say the legislation, which now faces a battle in the Senate, provides only some solutions to the problem. They say it will take a “blend” of legislation to prevent and maintain vacant and abandoned properties, as well as assist local municipalities with dealing with them.

Empire Justice Center’s Kirsten Keefe created a “blueprint” of active legislation that could do so. Here are five key pieces:

  1. The Abandoned Property Neighborhood Relief Act (A.6932A/S.4781A): This bill, introduced by Attorney State General Eric Schneiderman, was approved by the Assembly last week and would require banks and other mortgage lenders to maintain properties during the foreclosure process, which in some cases can take about three years. It will also create a state public registry, and it authorizes localities to take enforcement action. Fines of up to $1,000 per day can be levied for properties that aren’t properly maintained.
  2. The Community Restoration Fund: This fund would help avert foreclosures by acquiring distressed properties at a discount and passing on the savings to homeowners through affordable modifications, where possible. In cases where there is no feasible debt restructuring, the Fund could instead help a homeowner find new housing and then rehabilitate or demolish the property depending on the needs of each neighborhood. The Center is a member of New Yorkers for Responsible Lending, a coalition of statewide housing groups that is supporting the fund.
  3. Zombie Remediation Act of 2016 (A.9655/S.7295): This legislation would allow municipal governments to compel banks to complete foreclosure proceedings or discharge the mortgage for any certified abandoned property.
  4. Land bank legislation (A.7848/S.5776): Allow land banks to enter abandoned properties and examine them with the possibility of acquiring them.
  5. Mandatory settlement conferences: (A.1298/S.5242): The legislation makes mandatory settlement conferences more efficient in an attempt to avoid foreclosures that lead to abandonment of properties.

For a fuller description of the bills, and their potential impact, check out this chart from Empire Justice Center:

Vacant property legislation

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‘Nudging’ homeowners through loan modifications with text messages

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A text message to a homeowner

For many homeowners working to get a loan modification, just staying on top of deadlines and paperwork can be tedious, complicated, and overwhelming — even when they are working with a professional housing counselor.

That’s why the Center for NYC Neighborhoods is partnering with Neighborhood Housing Services of Bedford-Stuyvesant on an innovative one-year pilot program to assess whether routine text-messages to clients’ mobile phones about their loan modification can “nudge” them toward being better stewards of their own financial decisions. These text-message prompts are combined with traditional face-to-face housing counseling or phone calls from the counselors.

The concept is based on a growing body of academic scholarship in behavioral economics that looks at methods of encouraging people through small, purposeful interventions in their daily activities. American economist Richard Thaler popularized the use of behavioral economics with his best-selling book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” New Yorkers are probably most familiar with how behavioral economics are applied through the City’s efforts to reduce exposure to foodborne illness through its system of letter grades for restaurants. In that case, the letter-grade system acts to nudge consumers toward restaurants that are likely to have been well maintained, generally sanitary, and therefore safe.

Applying such interventions to financial skills — such as paying down high-interest credit cards or making regular savings deposits — is a growing field of practical inquiry.

Carolee Lewis of Jamaica, Queens, is one of the clients at NHS Bed-Stuy who has agreed to participate in the pilot program, which runs through September. The 71-year-old retired registered nurse approached the organization after her home went into foreclosure in the fall of 2015. NHS Bed-Stuy recommended a loan modification.

She said receiving text messages on her cell phone has eased the process, especially since she lives far from the offices of NHS Bed-Stuy.

“It reminds me of what’s going on, what they are about to do,” said Lewis, who has already received four text prompts through the program that officially launched in March. She says the organization also notifies her of workshops she might be interested in and makes it easy for her to respond to messages.

“It’s easier to text,” she said. “Sometimes they’re busy, and they can’t call me right away.”

Some example text prompts to clients in the program may include messages such as “Call your mortgage servicer to verify receipt of application for modification” or “Reminder from NHS Bed Stuy: Submit bank statements and pay stubs to us.”

A pair of researchers were hired to design and analyze the pilot program, with the aim of collecting data that will help to evaluate whether text-message “nudges” can be effective and integrated into future foreclosure counseling.

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Free home elevation program in NYC could lower flood insurance costs

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homebeingelevated (1)

One of the few guaranteed methods for lowering increasingly expensive homeowner flood insurance is to elevate homes, but there is little public funding to help pay for the costly retrofits.

But in a much-praised move, the State has announced a $7.5 million pilot program that will elevate homes owned by lower- and middle-income families in low-lying areas of Staten Island and Gerritsen Beach and Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, completely free of charge. The deadline to pre-apply is May 15, 2016.

Eligible homeowners must not have received elevation funds from other programs; they must live in the 100-year floodplain; and they must be able show their homes were damaged by Hurricane Sandy but still habitable.

To learn more about whether you’re in the floodplain, your flood risk and about flood insurance rates, go to FloodHelpNY.org

The primary goal of Project UPLIFT is to safeguard homes in surge-vulnerable neighborhoods from future storms. But elevating homes will also save families tens of thousands of dollars in flood insurance. Homeowners are seeing increases in their flood insurance payments of between 5 and 25% this year alone. Those rate increases have become a financial burden to the tens of thousands of low- and middle-income families who live along the 520 miles of New York City waterfront.

Even more alarming, for the first time this year, homeowners who have allowed their flood insurance policies to lapse more than 90 days will have to reinstate them at the higher full-risk rate, which will likely mean paying out thousands of dollars more to cover their homes.

Follow this link to apply for the program: Project UPLIFT

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