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New York CPAs: Your Neighbors Need You

Joanne S. Barry, CAE

The housing crisis has had a domino effect on the economy—and, in turn, on millions of Americans. Even if you don't personally know people who have lost—or are at risk of losing—their homes, you most likely don't have far to look: more than 345,000 New Yorkers' mortgages were in default or delinquent in 2011, according to the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, a resource and advocacy center for community groups in New York City (“Foreclosures in New York: What's Really Going On,” January 2012).

So when NYSSCPA member Edward J. Torres learned that a New York City program launched by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the City Bar Justice Center (an affiliate of the New York City Bar Association that provides pro bono legal services to low-income individuals) needed a CPA's expertise in a foreclosure action against a fellow city resident, he jumped at the chance. The pro bono work that he provided in the case turned the tables on the bank, putting the homeowner in a much better position to renegotiate her loan and make it more affordable.

The NYSSCPA has been connecting members willing to provide pro bono services with their fellow New Yorkers who need them—but you do not need an invitation to volunteer.

A Collective Effort

Earlier this year, spurred by Torres's initial work, the Society joined the efforts of the Lawyers' Foreclosure Intervention Network (LFIN), which aims to help New York City residents facing foreclosure to keep their homes by offering free legal assistance through settlement conferences and in applying for loan modifications under the federal Home Affordable Modification Program. Applicants are screened by LFIN staff, and then case descriptions are sent to a volunteer panel via email. If the loan cannot be reasonably modified, volunteers assist homeowners with short sales or other orderly transitions that minimize the damage to their credit.

The program's organizers realized rather quickly that the expertise of a CPA was necessary in interpreting payment histories and offering advice on the tax consequences of the foreclosure outcome, whether it resulted in a loan modification, short sale, or deed in lieu of foreclosure. They called us, and we put the call out to our members. Immediately, numerous members stepped up and offered to review cases.

As a result, the LFIN now has a roster of CPAs ready to help homeowners in New York City navigate the maze of paperwork presented by foreclosures. In fact, so many members have reached out that there are more volunteers than cases that can be assigned to them. By partnering with a statewide program that provides a similar service to all New Yorkers, the NYSSCPA hopes to generate additional opportunities for members to volunteer their expertise for this cause.

The Society is committed to helping New Yorkers keep their homes in other ways as well. In early October, NYSSCPA President Gail M. Kinsella reached out to members of the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee; she urged them to introduce legislation that would temporarily waive the 10% tax penalty levied on individuals in dire financial circumstances who take early distributions from qualified retirement plans in order to make payments to prevent foreclosure on a principal residence. Kinsella pointed out that since an exception currently exists for purchasing a home, it would be reasonable to provide an exception for saving a home in a distressed economic climate.

What You Can Do to Help

Americans are living through one of the worst economic climates since the Great Depression. CPAs are uniquely qualified to lend their expertise to those Americans who need it most—people who cannot, perhaps even in the best of economic times, afford the services of a financial expert. The NYSSCPA has been connecting members willing to provide pro bono services with their fellow New Yorkers who need them—but you do not need an invitation to volunteer. In every region across the state, you can find nonprofits and governmental agencies dedicated to helping members of the community keep their homes; even a quick Internet search can get you started. The holiday season is approaching, and, as most people who have volunteered already know, a gift that can make a real difference for someone in need often also ends up being a gift to yourself.

Joanne S. Barry, CAE. Publisher. The CPA Journal, Executive Director NYSSCPA, jbarry@nysscpa.org.

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