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If you buy a house, you need a will. And the city wants to help some low-income homeowners get one

Homes in the Marketview Heights neighborhood saw an over 100% increase in their assessed value after the City of Rochester released their 2024 reassessment of residential property.(photo by Max Schulte)
Max Schulte
/
WXXI News
The bill before the Rochester City Council would allow for people in city housing programs to access free will drafting and estate planning.

Rochester residents who have been able to purchase homes through the city’s homebuyer assistance programs would have access to free estate planning and will writing, if a bill before City Council is approved.

The legislation, introduced by Mayor Malik Evans, would authorize an agreement with JustCause, formerly the Volunteer Legal Services Project, to provide estate planning for 100 city residents over the course of two years. In order to qualify, a person must received homeowners assistance from the city or Rochester Housing Authority.

The trial run of the program would cost $100,000. The economic and racial equity group Living Cities and the United State Conference of Mayors have given the city grants that will cover that cost.

The program would be housed under the Office of Financial Empowerment, which the Mayor’s Office oversees.

“Low-income and minority communities are not building generational wealth at the same rate as our white, middle-income families are through homeownership,” said Angela Rollins, director of the Office of Financial Empowerment. “So, we wanted to look at ways of how we can help people pass on that generational wealth once they have that home.”

The city has myriad programs focused on encouraging homeownership among city residents. They include the Buy the Block housing rehabilitation and sale program and another program through JustCause, which City Council will vote on renewing this month, that offers services to allow homeowners to stay in place.

Madelaine Britt works in the Office of Financial Empowerment. She's led the project to provide wills and estate planning to homeowners, which is something she feels is critical to the city’s housing programs.

“How can us as an office support someone who wants to purchase a home, but that might not be available to them now, so how do we help them build credit?” Britt said. “But also, for folks who are further along down the line of that spectrum of homeownership, who own a home, who may have owned a home for decades, but they don’t necessarily have the legal protections in place so that wealth is protected and can be passed on.”

While the program is currently limited to providing legal services to people already in city programs, Rollins and Britt said their “dream” is to analyze the efficacy of the pilot, and other programs spearheaded by the office, and find ways to fund and scale them to the general public.

“That’s always in our vision, but I will say this program, this pilot with JustCause, is a two year contract, so it would be quite a bit of time before we had that proof of concept, we had the chance to evaluate our impact, and we had the case to expand it,” Rollins said.

The bill to launch the program will go to vote on Tuesday, June 18.

Gino Fanelli is an investigative reporter who also covers City Hall. He joined the staff in 2019 by way of the Rochester Business Journal, and formerly served as a watchdog reporter for Gannett in Maryland and a stringer for the Associated Press.