ALBANY — The mortgage crisis has forced tens of thousands of New Yorkers to battle for their homes, nearly half of them facing foreclosure without a lawyer to defend them, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.
Executive Deputy Attorney General Martin Mack said Monday that abuses by lenders and debt collectors, including foreclosures without proper documentation or chain of title, only happened because they can assume those borrowers don’t have attorneys.
He testified before the state’s top administrative judges on the need for civil legal services for the poor.
“New Yorkers threatened with foreclosure have only the promise of a fair legal system to protect them from being homeless and having their American dream die an unjust, and untimely death,” Mack said. “Even with special state legislative funding for foreclosure prevention services and the surge of pro bono assistance, across the state, 44 percent of New Yorkers facing foreclosure lack legal representation.”
However, Mack said that foreclosure filings in the state have been “dramatically reduced” by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s requirement last Oct. 20 that lender attorneys affirm they took reasonable steps to make sure residential foreclosure documents are accurate.
According to the Office of Court Administration, New York had 22,601 residential and commercial foreclosure filings in 2005.
Last year, there were 35,937 residential foreclosure filings, with the residential total projected to decline to 9,236 this year.
The attorney general’s office has been investigating mortgage practices, including the bundling of troubled loans into troubled securities whose sharp decline contributed to tumbling financial markets and the national recession.
“These are difficult times. And particularly in these difficult times the least advantaged in our society are the ones most at risk in our legal system,” Lippman said, opening the hearing. Recent statistics show 20 percent of New York City’s people living at or below the poverty level, as well as 15 percent of New Yorkers outside the city, and he said the judiciary has a moral, ethical and constitutional obligation to support civil legal services for the poor and equal justice under law.
That also helps the economy and reduces homelessness, social services and prison time, Lippman said. A judicial task force is examining the gap in services as it relates to housing, safety, income and other basic needs. Last year, $27.5 million was put into the judiciary budget to help fund those services, he said.
Court officials have estimated that 2.3 million New Yorkers are trying to navigate the civil court system without lawyers, including at least 98 percent of tenants in eviction cases and 95 percent of parents in child support matters.