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Why NYC's Senior Homeowners Are Vulnerable and How to Save Them

By Amy Zimmer | September 29, 2015 7:20pm
 Senior homeowners are prime targets for scammers. The city and nonprofits hope to help.
Senior homeowners are prime targets for scammers. The city and nonprofits hope to help.
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BRONX — Retired nurse Hortense Stephenson was duped many times over to an unfortunate end: she lost her South Bronx home of 12 years to foreclosure.

When she bought the hundred-year old row house from a company notorious for flipping homes, she took out a mortgage that she probably couldn't afford. Later, a shady contractor convinced her to renovate her basement into an apartment so she could earn extra income — but he didn't tell her it was an illegal conversion and that fines were accruing because of that. 

Meanwhile, she was falling behind in mortgage payments and hired a lawyer who promised to get her a loan modification. Instead, he convinced Stephenson to make her monthly mortgage payments to him for a full year. She never saw that money again.

At the same time, she took in a boarder, who duped Stephenson into signing a contract absolving the renter of having to pay anything. When Stephenson wanted to collect rent, the boarder took her to court and won, forcing the 74-year-old on a fixed income to cough up $5,000, Stephenson said.

It's not uncommon for senior homeowners to be victims of such scams, housing and legal advocates said. 

They often struggle on fixed incomes while their taxes, water bills and other expenses continue to rise.  Many are socially and physically isolated and may have health issues, physical or mental, so it's difficult to stay on top of home repairs and bills, which makes them prime targets for various schemes.

These problems are only expected to increase, as seniors are the city's fastest growing age group. One in five New Yorkers are expected to be over the age of 65 by 2030, according to the city's Department for the Aging. Nearly 20 percent of elderly New Yorkers currently live below the poverty line.

Stephenson was ultimately able to find an affordable unit just after her foreclosed home was sold at auction and she was in the midst of being evicted.

The City Bar Justice Center referred her to the Housing Mobility Program, a pilot launched last year by the Center for NYC Neighborhoods that has helped more than 300 homeowners, nearly a quarter of them seniors.

Through the program she was able to move into a senior housing facility in the mid-Bronx with an affordable rent of $250 a month, said Housing Mobility coordinator Rudy Ulin. The program also helped her get grants for more than $4,000 to help her cover the cost of the security deposit, first month's rent and utility bill arrears.  

"People did me injustice. It took a toll on me," Stephenson said.

She was thankful to have landed on her feet, but admitted, "When I came here, I was out of it."

Here are other ways the city, nonprofits and others are trying to assist senior homeowners.

1. Bolstering legal services to fight scams.

As part of its foreclosure prevention services, City Council earmarked $250,000 for seniors initiatives, coordinated by the Center for NYC Neighborhoods.

This will bolster groups like the JASA Legal Services in Queens, which works with seniors above the age of 60. The group has seen a rise in deed thefts, in which homeowners are tricked into paying for services that are never performed or told to sign papers that in reality are transferring the deed to their homes.

It will also help the group fight foreclosure rescue scams, which disproportionately affect older New Yorkers. The amount of money lost in such scams rises the older a homeowner is, according to a 2014 report from the Center for NYC Neighborhoods and Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

2. Helping seniors make emergency repairs to their homes.

City Council earmarked $2 million for a home repair fund, at least 60 percent of which is slated for senior homeowners, said Susan Ifill, of Neighborhood Housing Services, which is administering the program.

"Our seniors are one of our most precious assets, and yet [they] have the most difficulty being connected with resources that provide them with the type of living environment necessary for their continued comfort as they age," said Ifill, who hopes seniors will be able to use the money to make needed fixes like widening doors or lowering counters if they are now wheelchair bound, so that they don't end up getting into accidents that land them in the hospital.

The city might see another program focused on emergency retrofits for seniors when they are released from the hospital.

Johns Hopkins nursing school professor Sarah Szanton hopes to bring her Baltimore pilot program CAPABLE — or Community Aging in Place, Advancing Better Living for Elders — to New York and has applied for a grant through the National Institute of Health to do so. Partnering with the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, the program would send out teams composed of a nurse, an occupational therapist, and a handyman to visit low-income elderly residents. They'd check vital signs alongside details in the home like whether there are problematic stairs or whether a bathroom can be safely used. 

"When an older person goes into hospital, when they come out there are things they can't do when they come out," she said.

3. Helping to preserve communities by keeping investors at bay.

The Council also set aside $1 million for a "community restoration fund" with another $7 million coming from other city sources, said Councilman Daneek Miller, of Southeast Queens, home to a third of the city's foreclosures last year.

It's a mission-driven pilot program where nonprofits can purchase distressed mortgage notes in the communities hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis, many of whom are senior homeowners.

Instead of seeing long-term residents' homes sold off to investors, the nonprofits will be able to intervene with home-saving mortgage modifications and other tools to preserve what is a critical stock of affordable housing.

Many are hopeful that the program will be a model, showing how to make it easier for nonprofits to buy these mortgage notes — to "keep neighborhoods owned by neighbors" — instead of selling them to the highest bidder, said Matthew Hassett of the Center for NYC Neighborhoods. 

But, he noted, they'll need to raise more money to have a big impact.

Amy Zimmer will be moderating a panel discussion Wednesday on "Supporting Senior Homeowners in NYC" at a conference about affordable homeownership held by the Center for NYC Neighborhoods at the New York Law School.