Property Foreclosure Is A Growing Concern

Property foreclosure on older adults is an increasing concern in our county and across the country. For the last few years, Office for the Aging has been involved in reaching out to property owners during the foreclosure process to ensure they understand what is happening and are aware of all the resources available to assist them. A few years ago, I was contacted by an 80 year old man who had lived in his home for over 50 years and whose property was sold at the county foreclosure auction. As we investigated the situation we found that he had some mild cognitive decline that was impairing his judgement and reasoning ability as well as his ability to take care of complex problems like the foreclosure process. In addition, he was more susceptible to scams and had been giving his money away to get rich quick schemes that he really believed would pay him millions in return.

How can this happen? Well, if we look at headlines across the country, we will see that it is happening more and more frequently. In 2015, a 90 year old WWII vet was foreclosed on by M&T bank in Buffalo. In 2017, a 93 year old WWII vet almost lost his home in Burlington VT. In each case, family was unaware there was a problem until eviction from the home was imminent. We have to face the fact that our country is getting older. As people live longer, they are more likely to have decline in mental abilities just like other things decline as we age. This is not the same as Alzheimer’s or dementia but mild cognitive impairment or MCI can lead to those more serious conditions. MCI is also not part of normal aging and can be difficult to detect if you are not testing for it. People with MCI can usually function quite well with their daily activities and often cover lapses in memory with anger or other behavior so that even close relatives do not realize what is happening. People with MCI can drive, cook, shop and if they experience forgetfulness it is usually over things that happen very infrequently like taxes. The more common sign of MCI is not using sound judgement or reasoning ability and difficult solving complex problems. This was the case with my 80 year old who was giving all his money to get rich quick schemes and not paying his taxes. He had all his foreclosure notices bundled together and even told us he had seen a lawyer but when we checked he had never followed through to actually see someone. He had also convinced himself that the solicitations he received in the mail were legitimate and by sending money to these various organizations he was going to receive a lot more in return. Conversely, the 93 year old Vet from Vermont convinced himself that the foreclosure notices were a scam and he had already paid his debt so he ignored them.

MCI is not the only reason older adults get into foreclosure, but it is what prompted our office to get involved in foreclosure outreach. Some other cases of foreclosure we have seen are people with large health bills due to cancer treatment and victims of financial abuse. All of these people were unaware of the many resources available in our county that could help them to get back on their feet. When people in foreclosure call our NY Connects helpline we ask a lot of questions about the situation so that we can direct them to the programs and services best able to assist. We make sure that they are signed up for the STAR program, Enhanced STAR, and Veterans credits if eligible. Even though STAR reduces your school taxes, it puts more money in your pocket so you can pay your property taxes. You will be surprised that over 300 of the owner occupied properties on the foreclosure list did not have basic STAR and only 12 people had an enhanced STAR.

When you call NY Connects the operators goes through an options counseling process that looks over many aspects of the person’ s life to see what choices there are to solve the problem. In the case of foreclosure, one way is by connecting them to programs that save money like STAR. OFA also looks at health insurance costs especially for Medicare beneficiaries and assists them to change coverage if needed to save money on co-pays and premium costs. We connect people to SNAP and HEAP and other food and utility benefits that are underutilized. When all our efforts to save money are exhausted, we connect them to legal and financial resources available through the county and try to get in place a long term solution so they don’t find themselves in foreclosure again.

The problem is the system of foreclosure makes it difficult to figure out who is just being a delinquent homeowner and who is actually in need of assistance. There about a thousand properties on Chautauqua County’s foreclosure list and over 500 are owner occupied properties. Only a few of these have had some contact with the Office for the Aging or other county departments in the past and the tax rolls do not contain enough information to tell us if someone is a senior, disabled adult, or other life details that might guide our efforts. Contacting over 500 people before the April 15 deadline when the properties are transferred to the county is daunting task and requires more man hours than one or two agencies can handle. Despite these challenges, county departments and community partners, like COI, are doing the best we can to get to those in need. Until then we need the help of the public to make sure that no one falls through the cracks. So if you know someone facing foreclosure, please have them call the NY Connects helpline today at 753-4582, 661-7582 or 363-4582. Remember we are here to help you.