On April 23, 2020, the attorneys general of 33 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico (the “Attorneys General”) sent two letters, one to the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) and the other to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD” and collectively with FHFA, the “Agencies”), respectively, noting that the “national response must recognize the unique challenges presented by the unprecedented number of homeowners who are affected by COVID-19, including the fact that all of these homeowners need relief at the same time..[and that] [m]eeting this challenge will require straightforward and consistent guidance that can be quickly operationalized.” As a result, the Attorneys General urged the Agencies to make changes to their respective guidelines addressing COVID-19-related mortgage and foreclosure relief.
Revision of Forbearance Programs
The Attorneys General acknowledged that forbearance plans are a critical first response to borrowers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Attorneys General expressed concern that both the mortgage servicing industry and homeowners will become overwhelmed if changes are not made. The Attorneys General recommended or encouraged that:
- the Agencies “issue simple, self-executing guidance that servicers can easily implement to meet demand while providing an immediate, responsive resolution to borrowers.” The Attorneys General specifically expressed concern about HUD guidelines requiring an individualized evaluation for every borrower who receives a CARES Act forbearance, as well as guidelines issued by both of the Agencies requiring an individualized evaluation for borrowers coming out of forbearance, due to “grave doubts about servicers’ abilities to effectively manage the unprecedented number of borrowers who will be emerging from forbearance plans related to COVID-19 if individualized evaluations are required for each borrower.”
- the Agencies amend their forbearance programs so that the obligation to repay forborne payments is automatically placed at the end of the loan term in the form of additional monthly payments that will follow the current term of the loan. The Attorneys General noted that “there can be no reasonable expectation that a borrower who has experience a loss of employment or a reduction in income will be able to repay the forborne payments in a lump sum at the end of the forbearance period.” FHFA subsequently clarified its repayment requirements for its forbearance program on April 27, 2020.
- the Agencies issue guidance allowing these post-forbearance agreements to occur without requiring borrowers to execute any additional documents, such as a loan modification agreement or a promissory note for the forborne payments, or at least waiving or easing those requirements until the pandemic abates.
- FHFA to clarify that a borrower may receive a forbearance based on the borrower’s verbal attestation of a hardship related to COVID-19, and to encourage servicers to proactively notify borrowers of their right to verbally request a forbearance.
Expanded Eligibility for Disaster Relief-Related Modifications and Loss Mitigation Programs
The Attorneys General urged the Agencies to expand their eligibility standards for post-forbearance loss mitigation programs to enable a greater number of borrowers to qualify. The Attorneys General urged HUD to reconsider its decision to remove the Disaster Loan Modification option for borrowers affected by COVID-19. Further, the Attorneys General requested that the Agencies revise their respective loan modification eligibility criteria to ensure these programs have the same reach as the forbearance program mandated by the CARES Act, as the Agencies’ current guidelines impose several delinquency-related eligibility requirements. For example:
- Under current Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines, borrowers affected by COVID-19 are eligible for any one of three modification programs. Currently, however, a borrower is only eligible for such programs if the borrower was current or less than 31 days delinquent as of March 13, 2020. Additional delinquency-related eligibility criteria apply for the Cap and Extend Modification and Flex Modification programs.
- Under current HUD guidelines, a borrower is only eligible for the COVID-19 Partial Claim if the borrower was current or less than 30 days delinquent as of March 1, 2020 and the partial claim amount does not exceed 30 percent of the unpaid balance. If a borrower is ineligible for the COVID-19 Partial Claim, then the borrower will be reviewed for HUD’s FHA-HAMP program. The Attorneys General noted that the FHA-HAMP program has additional seasoning requirements, such as requiring the borrower to have made at least 4 payments and the loan to have aged at least 12 months.
The Attorneys General urged the Agencies to waive the delinquency status requirements of these modification programs and noted that post-forbearance modification programs should be commensurate with the forbearance plans required by the CARES Act, as the CARES Act requires forbearance for any borrower experiencing a COVID-19 financial hardship regardless of delinquency status. Moreover, the CARES Act authorizes forbearances of up to 360 days, so many borrowers receiving CARES Act forbearances will be more than 360 days delinquent by the end of the forbearance period.
Eviction and Foreclosure Moratoriums
Finally, the Attorneys General urged the Agencies to “instruct servicers that they also must suspend all foreclosures and evictions currently in process and cannot move forward to complete any step in the judicial or non-judicial foreclosure or eviction process while the moratorium is in place,” to address differences in various states’ foreclosure and eviction processes.
Currently, the CARES Act states that servicers of federally backed mortgages may not initiate any judicial or non-judicial foreclosures process, move for a foreclosure judgment or order of sale, or execute a foreclosure-related eviction or foreclosure sale until at least May 17, 2020. The Attorneys General asserted that advancing any step of the eviction or foreclosure process during a forbearance related to COVID-19 will only lead to borrower confusion and harm.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect homeowners and the mortgage servicing industry, there will likely be continued political pressure on the Agencies to further revise servicer loss mitigation guidelines. Servicers will need to be vigilant to stay on top of the rapidly evolving market conditions and regulatory environment.