Program gives relief in paying back taxes

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The Philadelphia Tribune

By Michael D’Onofrio

Published: May 8, 2018

Read the story on The Philadelphia Tribune

The manila envelope arrived in January: The city was going to foreclose on Brenda Reed’s Mount Airy home.

Reed, 73, had paid off her mortgage years ago. But after the former city worker retired in 2005, finances got tight.

The mother of six, whose husband died in the early 1990s, fell behind on her property taxes, which she attributed to “life situations”: rising property taxes, a fixed income from Social Security, a hospital visit.

So when that foreclosure notice came, Reed recalled she was “out of my mind.”

“What am I going to do? How am I going to work this out? Thirty-five years — grandkids, great grandkids — this is my home,” she said.

Reed immediately reached out for legal assistance and learned about the city’s Owner Occupied Payment Agreement program, or OOPA, which allowed her to set up a payment plan to repay her back taxes and stay in her home.

On Monday, Reed stood alongside state and city officials and local nonprofits to tout the program. In addition, officials revealed a $400,000 state grant and updates to the assistance program that they say will stave off property tax foreclosures for senior citizens and low-income residents.

Among those making the announcement in the Mayor’s Reception Room at City Hall were Council President Darrell Clarke; council members Kenyatta Johnson, Cindy Bass and Jannie Blackwell; state Sens. Vincent Hughes (D-7) and Shariff Street (D-3); and state Rep. Donna Bullock (D-195).

Four nonprofit legal and financial counseling providers — Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Legal Assistance, Clarifi and Philadelphia Unemployment Project — were awarded a $400,000 state grant through the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

Terri Redmond, manager of counseling and education for the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, said the grant will fund the organizations’ efforts to provide legal representation and housing counseling to homeowners, among other things.

“Now is the perfect time to launch this pilot project and increase the capacity of legal services and housing counseling agencies to serve these vulnerable homeowners,” Redmond said.

Hughes said the grant will allow Philadelphia to better address the foreclosure crisis affecting people throughout the city.

“This hits home. … It is one of the tools that we need to utilize to address the issue of high levels of poverty that exists in the city, and as an opportunity to deal with the gentrification issue, and as an opportunity to turn families’ lives around,” Hughes said.

In addition, changes to the OOPA program are “part of a larger, collaborative effort to protect homeowners from foreclosures and enroll them in assistance programs,” said Frank Breslin, the city’s revenue commissioner.

More than 10,000 people are enrolled in OOPA, which began in 2013. Requiring no down payment to enroll, the program allows residents who own and live in their home to enter into an affordable monthly payment plan to repay their outstanding property taxes, based on their income.

In the past, the city required residents to pay a minimum monthly payment. But the city now offers zero monthly payment agreements for taxpayers who meet certain income and age requirements.

In addition, the city will automatically enroll current property taxes into existing OOPA agreements for residents with monthly incomes at or below 30 percent of the Average Median Income, or AMI, which is $1,749 for a family of two.

For residents who meet certain income and age requirements or who are permanently disabled, the city will also apply OOPA payments to the most current year first for those taxpayers likely eligible for the state’s Property Tax/Rent Rebate Program.

While the city previously offered OOPA applicants information about housing counselors, Breslin said the city will be more proactive and facilitate a meeting when a resident requests assistance.

“Anyone who tells us they want a housing counselor, we’ll have a process in place to set them up with a housing counselor,” Breslin said.

The City Council approved the OOPA changes earlier this year, and they went into effect April 1.

Residents can apply to the program online at http://beta.phila.gov/oopa or by calling 215-686-6442.

Philadelphia’s home ownership has been on a downward trend for more than a decade.

Although the majority of city residents own their homes, home ownership dropped from 59 to 53 percent between 2000 and 2015.

Foreclosures have spiked in recent years. There were 10,649 foreclosure petitions in 2016 — more than a 1,200 percent increase from 2010.

The changes come at a time when the City Council is attempting to manage a multitude of housing issues, including gentrification, ballooning home prices, rising property taxes, and uneven development and investment throughout Philadelphia.

In April, the council extended the Longtime Owner Occupants Program, or LOOP, for higher-income earners. The program for those making 80 percent to 150 percent of the Area Median Income was expected to sunset in 2024.

The council also has proposed a multi-pronged package to increase affordable housing, encourage first-time home ownership, and keep longtime residents in their homes.

The proposed package, called Putting Philadelphians First, calls for the city to approve bigger buildings for developers in exchange for adding affordable housing units; offering up to $10,000 for first-time home buyers; creating a new construction tax; and establishing funds to increase affordable housing.

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