Every year in New York State hundreds of people sign over their homes in order to receive welfare assistance.
This is a little known requirement, since most people who have homes do not receive welfare benefits, and those that do, certainly do not want to talk about it.
I have had first hand experience with this. I am willing to talk about this because it has to change.
Over 20 years ago, I found myself in a situation where I desperately needed help. My marriage was dissolving, and there were several issues that prohibited me from working at that time. I had three children to support. I was very thankful there is a social service system that could help me.
I signed up for Food Stamps, Heating Assistance, Medicaid, and a housing stipend. Since I was a homeowner, I also had to sign a mortgage agreement with the district that administered the benefits to me. If I had not signed up for benefits for myself, I would not have had to sign over my home.
On several occasions I asked for the total dollars owed, but did not receive a response from Albany County.
A few years ago, I started the process to sell my home. I once again contacted the county, and this time, I did receive something.
One piece of paper with a breakdown of totals related to HEAP, Child Support and other benefits, and an adding machine tape, with a few lines of numbers and a total. There was no back up documentation.
They said I owed them over 40k.
In order to sell my home, I had to have the legal document from the county releasing the lien.
If you have ever experienced the welfare process, you know it can be one of the most dehumanizing and frustrating times in your life. I was now having to delve back into the gory details because thankfully, I had saved much of the documentation related to the benefits I received.
I knew I did not owe that much, but proving that seemed an impossible feat.
I was panicked. I didn’t know who could help. Where would you even start? I went to the county comptroller, no help. I contacted several agencies (Crime Victims) to find out if there was assistance with this problem. I was referred to Empire Justice Center, who knew exactly how to help. They contacted the appropriate department within the county, requested additional paperwork, and assigned someone to work on my case. Several months later, after meetings, phone calls, and letters, we came to an agreement. I would pay Albany County 20k, reflecting a cut in the requested amount by more than 20k.
Several things came to light during this process:
• Recipients should be informed of their rights when it comes to assets. If It had been fully explained to me what the lien meant, I may have chosen to forego benefits for myself. This option should also be reviewed on a yearly basis for decision by the homeowner.
• The Districts that administer welfare benefits in New York State do not have an accurate system by which they track what is spent for a particular client.
• The paperwork I finally received from the county was filled with duplicate charges, attempts to recoup benefits that are not recoverable, i.e. HEAP, Food Stamps, and Child Care, and incorrect totals because income taxes that were paid to the county were not correctly accounted for.
• The shoddy bookkeeping is an embarrassment to Albany County. Paperwork that was received was not easy to read, was cut and pasted together, and had some information redacted.
• As a taxpayer, I am affronted that the few years anyone would need of certain types of assistance, would have to be paid back, especially if they are a home owner. What are taxpayer dollars supposed to be spent on, if not assisting people who follow the rules and regulations, and need help on a temporary basis? Equity that is built up in a home is nearly stripped because of the requirement in New York State. This is injurious to the poor who are trying to get ahead. In most cases, single parents, women who may receive some type of cash windfall, or are lucky enough to have a home have this burden to fulfill years later.
What needs to change:
1) Welfare recipients that are lucky enough to own a home, should not have to sign over that home to receive benefits on a temporary basis.
2) If this requirement is not reversed, then, at the very least, homeowners should receive a formal yearly accounting as to what exactly was dispersed in the interest of that homeowner.
3) The districts need to clean up the bookkeeping system that is in place, and the state needs to require a system that is consistent throughout New York State in tracking liens on homes
I did sell my home, and am grateful for the benefits I received so many years ago, and more recently, the help from Empire Justice Center.
I find it distressing that stripping the poor of what little equity they may have built up is still happening today.