For those in need of housing assistance in Westchester, Westchester Residential Opportunities provides different services ranging from mortgage counseling and first-time home buying workshops to senior housing assistance. The organization has been saving homes and families since 1968, when it was founded by Nick Beilenson.
Nick Beilenson recently passed away on February 22, 2022, leaving behind a legacy. He created WRO during the civil rights movement as a way to enforce the Fair Housing Act and integrate it into Westchester neighborhoods. He was a fierce advocate for social justice and truly showed that through his 53 years with WRO.
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Looking ahead, Executive Director Marlene Zarfes speaks about the impact Westchester Residential Opportunities has created and what the future holds for the organization since the passing of its founder. “For fair housing, we advocate, educate, investigate, and enforce,” she says.
Housing Testing for Discrimination and Disability is the most popular service WRO has. After training with other organizations, WRO employs people to detect if housing or rent realtors are discriminated against based on protective class.
WRO gives two employees the profile of the home buyer. One has no apparent disabilities and the other will have a disability. When they reach the house or apartment, both will go undercover with mics (legal in NYS) and see how the housing provider reacts with each. If there is a difference, WRO will take action with a lawsuit or bring it to the human rights commission.
“We are enforcing the law; we’ve done a lot of this with maternity cases. It’s actually a requirement that when someone is looking for a mortgage and they are pregnant, the lender has to look beyond just what they are showing as available cash and look at available assets,” Zarfes says.
WRO’s Fair Lending Program works with residents who hold mortgages with potential predatory lending violations. The counselors analyze each situation and proceed with mortgage cases that show unfair lending.
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Unfair lending practices can be reverse redlining, mortgage rescue scams, equity stripping, unfair fees charged by mortgage distress property consultants, unfair practices used by mortgage servicers, and different treatment in the marketing and maintenance of bank-owned properties.
WRO has been instrumental in working with Governor Hochul’s office for domestic violence victims in its Fair Lending Program. Usually, victims of domestic violence have damaged credit because of their abusers so this exempts the victims from any minimum credit score requirement when they are looking for housing. “Many people are coerced into debt by their abusers so that damages their credit score and they are unable to get safe housing to get away from their abusers,” Zarfes says.
First Time Home Buying is another popular program Westchester Residential Opportunities provides. It is a total of eight hours of classes that take place one-on-one with a counselor to learn everything the client needs in order to buy a home.
“It is really an incredible program that really gives people a leg up and all of our counselors in that program are Housing and Urban Development-certified counselors,” Zarfes says.
After the clients receive their certificate of completion for the program, they can go to a number of banks and receive grants towards closing costs and down payments of homes. Grants can range from $10,000 to $30,000.
“There are grants from the City of Yonkers, we have grants from the City of White Plains, and we also have a grant from Westchester County. There is a lot of money out there, and our counselors work really hard to get it to the people and fulfill the terms of the grant which is sometimes difficult also,” Zarfes says.
📣CALL TO ACTION📣
Call your NYS assembly members and tell them how important #FairHousing is to you.
Look up your representatives: https://t.co/NWikjl5jKm
— WROHousing (@WROHousing) February 8, 2022
Zarfes also speaks about WRO’s Independent Living Program. Through this, the organization provides counseling and housing for people with mental illnesses depending on the level of support that clients need. The clients will live in single room occupancy or will live in apartments scattered throughout Westchester County. The placement in WRO apartments is decided through Westchester County Department of Mental Health’s Single Point of Access Admission process (SPOA).
“There are so many people that need help, and mental health is very important to WRO, so making sure to help people coming from so many different situations is important,” Zarfes says.
With the lack of affordable housing in Westchester County, WRO hopes to make a difference so everyone is provided with affordable housing. The ultimate goal of WRO is to put itself out of business in hopes that eventually there will be no need for affordable housing assistance.
The group is always looking for donors and volunteers to help the organization. It has also recently joined Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn in order to better spread the word about WRO.
“A lot of people in Westchester don’t really know about the wonderful services and the excellence of our staff. We’ve been around since 1968, and our striving to help so many people is the reason why we’ve been around for so long,” Zarfes says.
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The organization will continue to do the work because it knows how important social justice and equal rights were to Nick Beilenson. He was incredible to staff, clients, and made everyone feel at home.
“Nick leaves behind an organization that is well set up to help protect everyone’s housing rights for a long time,” Zarfes says.
WRO accepts donations through its website here or by calling 914.428.4507.