A 9/11 survivor whose bank halted her mortgage modification due to the pandemic. A homeowner-landlord who hasn’t received rental income from tenants since the pandemic began. A woman who lost her income to COVID-19, and was unable to receive any relief from her mortgage servicer — not a payment plan, loan modification, or a forbearance.

These are just a few examples among hundreds of working-class homeowners who have received assistance from the Center for NYC Neighborhoods and its network of community-based partners since the earliest days of the coronavirus outbreak.

To better understand the pressures of the pandemic, over the past several months, Center staff conducted homeowner focus groups, fielded multiple surveys, and gathered insight from across our network to gain a more intimate understanding of what homeowners are going through and what interventions are needed. What we learned sheds light on the challenges homeowners are facing as well as the relief options that they are able to access.

Lack of Information from servicers

Homeowners are not connected to sources of information and services that will help them navigate the pandemic relief options they will need to access in coming months, including post-forbearance servicer options and financial assistance. Expert housing advocates like our on-the-ground network partners serve a critical role in assisting homeowners in distress, and even more so during a time of crisis.

Even after missing a payment, 45% of homeowners surveyed still had not been in contact with either their mortgage servicer or a housing counselor for assistance. Only four of those who spoke to their mortgage company for help were referred to a housing counselor, and only two homeowners surveyed identified a housing advocate as the primary person they contacted for help. Twenty percent of respondents were unfamiliar with forbearances, and 73% of those clients also said they were “worried about paying their mortgage, taxes, or insurance.”

Even for homeowners who are equipped to seek out assistance, the outcome is uncertain. One Nassau County homeowner was at risk of foreclosure after losing her job and being hospitalized for two weeks with COVID-19, and sought to secure an agreement with her servicer. But she was told her mortgage was being sold to another company, which in turn told her she was ineligible for a forbearance because she was several months behind on her payments. That’s when she reached out for legal help from our network.

COVID financial impacts are deep and varied

Financial impacts on homeowners are deep and varied, and some irreversible harms are occurring now. Thousands of homeowners across New York report being behind on their mortgage payments.

But missed mortgage payments are not the only point of stress. We find that homeowners are coping with increased expenses, utilities arrears, and deferred upkeep. When asked what other kind of assistance they needed besides help with their mortgages, 58% of people contacted identified help paying for home repairs, 16% said food assistance/SNAP, and 12% said help finding employment.

An advocate from CHHAYA, a community-based organization in Queens, confirmed the survey results: “There are not a lot of resources available, the forbearance will only address one expense. There are still utility bills and taxes.”

Communities of color and low-income communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic in almost every way. Homeowners in these communities have borne the brunt of unemployment, income instability, and social displacement, as well as the health effects of the pandemic.

What We are Doing About It

At the Center, we are actively working to address and diminish these challenges for homeowners. That means connecting with servicers and community-organizations like our Network Partners to educate homeowners; conducting aggressive outreach to better understand needs; and developing new products and services to soften the financial impact of the pandemic for families.

It is crucial that we learn lessons from previous crises. After 2008, the borough of Queens alone lost over 20,000 Black homeowners. After Sandy, aid was slow in coming and it took years of suffocating red tape before homeowners saw concrete changes in their living conditions. This time must be different. That’s why we are working with our partners, and through the Homeowner Protection Program, to actively and seek solutions to educate homeowners and intervene in crisis situations as early as possible. It’s also why we are working to ensure that funds from the federal Homeowner Assistance Fund flow to the most vulnerable. Above all, the recovery must be equitable for communities that too often have fallen through the social safety gaps.