Author: Mark P. Lazzara
For more than 25 years my life has been guided by fortune, and the opportunity to help and serve others. One of the most fulfilling times for me was working with the Western New York Law Center (WNYLC), a small but highly successful nonprofit agency with a critical mission. My involvement in helping to advance their mission and to contribute in a small way to strengthening their capacity was truly a positive experience in many ways; I learned a great deal about solving problems some homeowners can have when faced with daunting financial challenges.
During my tenure, WNYLC’s priority was to collect data to help prevent families from experiencing foreclosure or being evicted. It was through their work that I came to understand what a “zombie” home is, and how banks would often frighten homeowners out of their homes, so that the bank could foreclose on a house unopposed, and at the bank’s own leisure.
I believe that through their work, my own relative was able to keep his home. He was behind one mortgage payment; every month he tried to make payments, but the bank refused to take any partial payment towards the balance. He would have lost his home had it not been for the work and legislative changes from the WNYLC and other legal organizations helping homeowners in New York.
On January 30, 2013, after a pilot program in 2012, the WNYLC publicly announced the launch of Buffalo’s branch of the Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office (CLARO), which helps people bogged down in collections, garnishments, or frozen bank accounts. As a result of their efforts to eradicate consumer-related judgments, large numbers of low-income and moderate-income families were collectively relieved of $992,710 in unfair judgments.
Of the 4,851 people served by CLARO-Buffalo, 76% of them live at or below the poverty level. The majority of CLARO clients come from zip codes 14201, 14208, 14211, 14212, and 14213. Within those zip codes, 26%- 45.6% of the population lives below the poverty level. Furthermore, over 50% of CLARO clients come from areas where at least 20% of residents live in poverty. Many of clients CLARO serve are mistreated, vulnerable populations such as victims of domestic violence, persons with disabilities, formerly incarcerated individuals, immigrants, refugees, and veterans, most of whom are not on public assistance but working in low-income, poverty wage jobs.
My experience with this group is firsthand. A few months ago, I learned I had a garnishment and judgment, from a bank where I once did business. I — just like many of my neighbors in the Buffalo area — did not even know that I was being sued for this debt. I believed this debt was completely paid, which explained why I did not receive any statements or notices from the bank. However, the actual reason why I did not know about this lawsuit was because the bank, for no understandable reason, began sending all notices and legal documents to an address completely unrelated to me. Because I did not get any notices or legal papers, the bank was able to get a default judgment against me, and garnish my wages – all unopposed.
As soon as I found out about this, I went immediately to a consumer credit counseling program. They told me I needed to go to the CLARO-Buffalo Program. I went to their location in Buffalo City Court, 7th Floor, Part 15. Needless to say I was more than just a little afraid, but my fears were dissolved quickly when a young man came up to me and asked if I was here for CLARO and I responded that I was and he let me know he was serving the WNYLC through a Catholic Charities Corps.
In short order, I met with a brilliant young warrior named Stephen. He was kind and gracious. He kept me calm during the process. We drafted legal documents that would vacate the default judgment, and would give me an opportunity to be heard in this lawsuit. Together, we discussed what documents I would need to attach as evidence that I did not live at the address that the bank said – and swore to the Court – that I did. I went back one more time to finish my motion papers, and then we made a court date. On that day, the judge heard our arguments and made a decision: the judgment and garnishment were removed; however, the case continues, and I am still working on the debt. Stephen has been a rock star, doing amazing work similar to their success with mortgages and foreclosures that the young volunteers I sent to the WNYLC, almost 10 years ago, were doing and who spent months engaged in significant research.
In another case, a person that I know named Walter, defaulted on his mortgage in 2009. Walter tried to work on a loan modification on his own until a foreclosure was filed in 2014 and he began working with the WNYLC and was able to negotiate a settlement, removing over $40,000 from the principal balance of his mortgage and reducing his interest rate from a sub-prime rate to a more affordable rate. Walter is now current, allowing him to maintain his property instead of owing more due to the bank’s delay and unwillingness to work with him for 5 years.
CLARO-Buffalo functions under the auspices of the Western New York Law Center, which administers the program; together with the BFNC Hope Center and volunteer attorneys, and with the support of the 8th Judicial District Courts, sponsored of the John R. Oishei Foundation and are actively looking for additional sources of funding to keep the program running.
CLARO is available on a walk-in basis Tuesdays from 5pm to 7pm at 2495 Main Street, Suite 330, Buffalo 14214 and Fridays from 10am to noon, Buffalo City Court, 50 Delaware Avenue, 7th Floor, Part 15 or you can reach them at 716-828 8432 or clarobuffalo.org.