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Spotlight: A conversation with Christie Peale, CEO and Executive Director of Center for NYC Neighborhoods

A self-professed “champion for homeowners,” the Center for NYC Neighborhoods put its 12 years of experience to work this year to help New Yorkers preserve their homeownership and curb the negative effects of COVID-19 across the state. Founded in the wake of the 2008 mortgage crisis to protect middle- and working-class families and the communities they live in, the Center is one of the country’s largest nonprofits dedicated to affordable homeownership. The organization provides comprehensive homeowner services, including mortgage assistance, foreclosure mitigation, scam prevention, rehabilitation support and disaster response.

Relying on community relationships, a network of partners and its Homeowner Hub, this Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved counseling group was able to continuously calibrate its response efforts with real-time feedback from local homeowners. It has also leveraged its wholly-owned subsidiary, Sustainable Neighborhoods LLC, a certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and licensed mortgage banker, to directly assist homeowners. By maintaining a dialogue with the complete spectrum of housing stakeholders – from homeowners and community leaders to local, state and federal policymakers – the Center has been able to identify and resolve some of the most pressing housing issues that emerged in the months following the outbreak of the pandemic.

The National Housing Conference spoke to Center for NYC Neighborhoods CEO and Executive Director Christie Peale and Director of Communications Cristian Salazar to examine the evolution of the organization’s outreach, services and advocacy from the onset of the pandemic to today, and discuss what challenges still lie ahead.

How did the Center for NYC Neighborhoods first get started?

The Center was created in 2007 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city leaders, along with private capital and foundations, to help tackle the city’s response to the subprime mortgage crisis as a way to get ahead of the challenges facing homeowners – instead of waiting for federal assistance. The organization formally launched in 2008 and has devoted its efforts since then to empowering local homeowners to preserve their homeownership in the face of any kind of crisis, whether it’s natural disasters, scams or a global pandemic.

The Center also played a role in Hurricane Sandy relief, raising $1.3 million in funds, as well as directing federal support towards storm recovery and reconstruction. After successfully launching a citywide loan program for homeowners at risk of foreclosure, the organization was tapped by the New York Attorney General’s Office to take its program statewide, creating the New York State Mortgage Assistance Program. In recent years, the organization has evolved to become a “one-stop shop” for protecting and promoting affordable homeownership.

What lessons learned from the 2008 mortgage crisis are applicable to COVID-19 and how has the organization shared those with policymakers and lawmakers?

When COVID-19 struck, the Center focused on its core mandate to protect homeowners at immediate risk of foreclosure, armed with the insights gained from years of helping homeowners successfully navigate post-crisis conditions. In areas where the organization had deep expertise, such as the allocation of crisis funds, the Center’s advocacy team shared its best practices with state and federal policymakers. For example, the organization has developed recommendations for how the HEROES Act’s Homeowner Assistance Fund should be implemented based on its own experience with the Department of Treasury’s 2010 Hardest Hit Fund and has offered the New York State Mortgage Assistance Program as a model for how homeowner assistance funding should be rolled out on a national scale.

Drawing on its involvement in previous foreclosure crises, the organization also outlined common pain points that can, and should be, avoided when policymakers and lawmakers design new COVID-19 relief programs. Direct homeowner assistance, for instance, should take a consumer-oriented approach, avoiding overly stringent program eligibility and documentation requirements that act as barriers to connecting homeowners with the help they need. The Center has also advocated for greater participation from housing counseling organizations and legal services, stronger investment in public outreach campaigns and servicer incentives that enhance participation, communication and data transfer.

How did the organization maintain communication with homeowners during COVID-19?

The Center’s Homeowner Hub has historically been the primary channel for which the organization stays connected to the community and its needs. The organization manages and staffs this homeowner hotline that receives and directs at-risk homeowners from across the state and city.

The Homeowner Hub is a single point of entry system that homeowners can access by calling 311 in the city or by submitting a request for assistance from HomeownerHelpNY, FloodHelpNY, or the Center for NYC Neighborhoods websites. The hotline provides rapid homeowner assistance, offering brief advice and connecting homeowners to vetted organizations in the neighborhood that can help resolve their issues. As part of the Homeowner Hub, the organization also conducts proactive engagement to severely delinquent homeowners to connect them to free services. The organization ramped up its hotline support in response to the spike in inbound inquiries – representing existing users, as well as new homeowners. The hotline played a central role in cluing the organization into the needs on the ground in real time, acting as a sort of “nerve center” during COVID-19.

What were some of the housing issues homeowners raised during COVID-19?

The Center relied heavily on the feedback of homeowners to track the evolution of housing issues throughout the pandemic and calibrate its advocacy and support accordingly. Early on, many homeowners expressed confusion around what a forbearance was, with some homeowners failing to take advantage of this loss mitigation option despite experiencing financial hardship. Over time, the organization fielded more questions about taxes and escrows and what happens at the end of a forbearance. 

Certain subsets of the homeowner population emerged as areas of concern based on the information received from the Homeowner Hub and other outreach efforts. For instance, the organization received a growing number of inquiries from smaller landlords – still responsible for paying their own mortgage, while seeing their rent collections dwindle and waiting on federal rental assistance. In the late summer months and heading into the fall, roughly one in five inquiries were from small landlord homeowners related to tenant nonpayment. In response, the organization developed a loan program, available through its wholly owned subsidiary CDFI, uniquely designed to support these landlords by providing financial support directly to homeowners and their renters with funding from the Credit Builders Alliance. These loans allow landlords to continue to pay their mortgage, while preserving tenants’ safe housing. In addition to programmatic support, the organization alerted lawmakers, policymakers and financial institutions to the need for greater assistance for small landlords and their tenants.

Other than small landlords and tenants, are there any at-risk populations the organization prioritized during COVID-19?

While the Center is committed to serving all middle- and working-class families in New York, different subsets of the population emerged as particularly vulnerable during the course of the pandemic. A significant volume of inquiries came from senior homeowners, for example, who may be more susceptible to scams and experience greater difficulty getting in touch with their mortgage servicer. To ensure that these seniors were staying up-to-date on the latest relief options, moratoriums and forbearance requirements, the organization engaged in targeted outreach, including mailings and resources for senior centers.

The organization’s Senior Homeowner Initiative pre-dates COVID-19, but was essential to supporting this subset of homeowners. The initiative is a coordinated effort, led by the Center and seven community-based legal services and housing counseling providers, that focuses on integrating cross-sector services by coordinating with government partners, elected officials, and mortgage lenders to collectively reach out to community-based organizations and older homeowners and advance policies that protect senior homeowners.

How has the organization managed housing issues that were difficult to resolve?

Some of the most challenging housing issues the organization encountered during COVID-19 were referred to the Escalations Program. The program works directly with housing counselors statewide to resolve complex cases with the end goal of helping homeowners avoid foreclosure. The Center leverages extensive relationships with staff at financial institutions and mortgage servicers to escalate cases and come to an effective solution. The Escalations Program is also a component of the Attorney General’s Homeowner Protection Program. As part of the program, the organization met with servicers to resolve issues around loss mitigation and forbearance during COVID-19 and even referred a few cases to the New York Department of Financial Services and the New York Attorney General.

How did the Center mobilize and support housing counselors during COVID-19?

The Center increased its support of HUD-approved housing counseling agencies in response to the needs of homeowners during COVID-19. When New York initially went on pause, the organization quickly circulated a survey to members of its network of community-based organizations to assess availability and counseling status. The organization maintained a dialogue with counselors and collected data that was shared with the Attorney General’s Office to ensure legal services and financial counselors were addressing housing issues as they arose.

Counselor feedback also helped the Center to better understand what COVID-related content should be circulated at any given time. The organization continued coordinating housing counseling training, which helps educate and update organizations on available programs and facilitates resource sharing, and contributed to the Urban Institute’s Mortgage Market COVID-19 Collaborative borrower awareness campaign. The campaign encourages homeowners to contact housing counselors to access forbearance options. In preparation for 2021, the organization is also developing new strategies to support housing counselors and homeowners as more homeowners exit forbearance. 

What challenges does the Center anticipate in the coming months? 

There are many unanswered questions as homeowners and renters near the end of emergency forbearance programs and eviction protections. What happens at the end of a 12-month forbearance? Will the U.S. see a wave of evictions and foreclosures? How can housing organizations ensure these households get the legal support they need? Any response should recognize and address the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black and Hispanic communities. For too many families of color, COVID-19 is the latest threat to stable and affordable housing. The disparity in infections has been tied to the decades of segregation, redlining and persistent discrimination faced by Black Americans. The Center for NYC Neighborhoods is working to ensure that the responses to this crisis narrow the racial gap in household wealth and health, and do not widen it.

Spotlight: Mercy Housing

As one of the nation’s largest affordable housing organizations, Mercy Housing is a leader in the development, preservation, management and financing of service enriched, affordable housing for low income households across the country. 

Mercy Housing’s commitment to service enriched housing stems from their belief that people need more than just a place to live to have a stable life. As a result, they have built a strong resident services platform to provide a wide array of programming for residents to help improve their health, wellness and financial stability.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mercy Housing quickly leveraged its resident services platform to provide critically needed assistance specific to the needs of the residents in their properties across the country.

We chatted with Laura Andes and Kate Peterson, Mercy Housing’s senior vice presidents of national resident services and communications to discuss some of their best practices and lessons they have learned during the pandemic. The following is our conversation edited for brevity.

How did having an existing resident service platform help you respond quickly to the pandemic?  

Immediately, we began a program where our resident service staff called residents on a daily basis. Having an existing platform meant that our staff had existing relationships with the residents prior to the pandemic. That mattered a lot because people were more likely to pick up the phone and more likely to open up and talk about what was going on in their lives. These conversations allowed us to develop a better understanding of emerging needs so that we could respond more quickly to the immediate and sometimes unique needs of each property. It was also hugely important for many of the senior residents to remain connected during this period of social isolation.

What were some of those immediate needs and how were you able to respond?

Mercy Housing staff preparing to distribute food at one of their seniors housing properties

Because we have so many properties in California and Washington, we began to adjust programming in late February to early March. We immediately stopped all in-person programs, closed down community rooms and began our phone outreach program where we quickly learned that the most immediate need was food insecurity. Because we could quantify this need so quickly, we were able to receive emergency funding from private donors and foundations to buy more food. In Seattle, we worked with local restaurants to purchase their unused food and later scaled up this initiative through a partnership with Bank of America. Additionally, our relationship with Microsoft led to them donating meals that would have normally been prepared [in] their cafeteria to us.  

Read more about how partner organizations are helping Mercy Housing fund their food insecurity efforts here.

As you continue to stay in touch with residents, how have you been able to adjust your services to support their needs?

Once layoffs started occurring, it became clear to us from our phone calls that residents were going to need help obtaining unemployment insurance, stimulus payments and extended SNAP benefits.  We were able to get our resident service staff members the training they needed to help residents access those benefits as quickly as possible.  

Has the pandemic highlighted any areas that you would like to focus more on going forward?

Accessing digital technology has been a huge challenge. We have computer centers at many of our properties for residents to access the internet. When we shut those down, many of them lost their ability to go on-line. The digital divide has had an impact on all residents, especially school-age children who have now transitioned to remote learning. We are working to identify which children need computer and Wi-Fi access so that they are able to keep up with their schoolwork.  

Read more about how Mercy Housing is enabling digital access for their residents.

How have your partnerships elevated your work?

Having an existing resident service platform meant that we had already built many community and business partnerships in the towns and cities we operate in. It was pretty remarkable when the pandemic broke out that those partners said, “how can we help?” before we said, “can you help us?”

How have your staff and residents adapted to changes?

The creativity and innovation of our staff has been incredible. In one senior property, our staff organized “hallway bingo” games where residents sit in their doorways and play. Some are doing balcony singalongs. Our Out-of-School Time (“OST”) program has an Instagram feed and they’re putting daily recorded videos on their Instagram feed for their kiddos to do. We are now seeing residents who never showed up to programming before participating, allowing us to develop relationships that maybe wouldn’t have been formed prior to the pandemic. We take that engagement in our programs as one more sign that the work we are doing is making a difference.

Three takeaways and a challenge

Having an existing resident service platform across their properties is helping Mercy Housing respond more quickly to the needs of their residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Specifically, this has allowed them:

  1. Leverage the trust they established between staff and residents prior to the pandemic to engage more deeply with their residents.
  2. Building off their existing relationships with community service providers to help provide funding and services needed at the properties.
  3. Utilize data collection to make it easier for them to assess, track and quantify the need for services and grant funding.

One of the biggest challenges Mercy has faced is providing digital access for residents.

In addition to being an NHC member, Mercy Housing is also a member of the Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future (SAHF) and has worked with other SAHF members to build a certification program for resident service providers.  For more information about building a resident service platform, visit the CORES website.

If you’d like to learn more about Mercy Housing Resident Services, click here. You can also listen to Cinnaire’s podcast interview with Mercy Housing on how they are responding to COVID-19 here.