On July 16, 2020, the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services’ (the “Committee”) Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations (the “Subcommittee”) held a hearing to discuss mortgage servicers and their implementation of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stability Act (“CARES Act”). On May 4, 2020, Chairwoman of the Committee, Maxine Waters, sent a request for information (“RFI”) to eleven servicers, requesting information on their forbearance procedures and overall compliance with the CARES Act. The hearing focused on the data received through the RFI, as well as questions directed to witnesses regarding how COVID-19 has affected vulnerable communities and what additional steps Congress should take to provide borrowers with further relief.
Implementation of the CARES Act
Subcommittee Chairman, Al Green, opened the hearing by noting that the information received from the eleven servicers in response to the Committee’s RFI indicated that over two million forbearance requests had been received since March 27, 2020. However, Subcommittee Chairman Green raised concerns that some borrowers may not have been made aware of their right to the full 180 days (plus an additional 180 days) of forbearance provided under the CARES Act. Ranking Member Andy Barr acknowledged that mortgage servicers experienced “hiccups” in implementing the CARES Act’s forbearance and foreclosure provisions, but noted that the data received from the eleven servicers suggested that servicers were generally doing a “good job” in implementing and complying with the CARES Act.
Committee Chairwoman Waters and Subcommittee Chairman Al Green identified areas where servicers struggled to effectively implement the CARES Act’s protections. Specifically, both the Committee’s majority staff memorandum and Subcommittee Chairman Green noted that, in some cases, servicers failed to properly offer or inform borrowers about the full 180-day initial forbearance period available to borrowers under the CARES Act and only offered initial forbearance of 90-days.
Subcommittee Chairman Green noted that he believed the intent of the CARES Act was to ensure borrowers receive the full 180-day initial forbearance period, with the right to shorten forbearance upon request. Additionally, Chairman Green noted that in certain cases servicers advised borrowers that a lump sum repayment would be required at the end of the forbearance period, which could discourage borrowers from taking advantage of the CARES Act’s forbearance protections, and is inconsistent with federal agency guidance prohibiting servicers from requiring a lump sum repayment. That said, Representative Nydia Velazquez acknowledged that a HUD Office of Inspector General report found that the FHA may have provided incomplete, inconsistent data and suggested that additional guidance from the FHA is needed. A similar sentiment was echoed in the Committee’s majority staff memorandum, wherein the majority staff noted that “Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have at times provided inconsistent and potentially confusing guidance regarding the CARES Act forbearance protections.”
Witnesses Marcia Griffin, founder and president of Homefree USA, and Donnell Williams, President of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, acknowledged that servicers’ implementation of the CARES Act has improved since the start of the pandemic, but also noted certain areas for improvement. For example, Ms. Griffin and Mr. Williams both noted that servicers experienced a delay in implementing the CARES Act and in providing appropriate training to employees regarding the CARES Act’s protections as well as the post-forbearance loss mitigation options that would be available to impacted borrowers exiting forbearance. Furthermore, Ms. Griffin and Mr. Williams advocated for better training for customer service employees, more support for housing counselors, and more extensive borrower outreach.
Post Forbearance Measures and the Health Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (“HEROES”) Act
Members of the Subcommittee also questioned witnesses regarding what further measures should be taken by Congress to provide additional relief to impacted borrowers to ensure they can remain in their homes after their forbearance ends. Ranking Member Andy Barr noted that the HEROES Act, recently passed by the House, would require automatic forbearance and mandate certain post-forbearance loss mitigation options. However, both he and Representative Lee Zeldin cautioned that mandating certain loss mitigation options may impact servicers’ ability to work effectively with impacted borrowers, and that it is best for servicers to speak with borrowers to determine the best option available for each borrower. Representative Rashida Tlaib and Subcommittee Chairman Green also indicated that Congress is considering whether to provide additional direct payments to borrowers. Representative Zeldin noted that while mortgage servicers have a vital role to play in helping impacted borrowers, they cannot shoulder all of the associated financial burden without increased liquidity.
Alys Cohen, Staff Attorney for the National Consumer Law Center, supported providing protections similar to the CARES Act for borrowers with non-federally backed mortgages, including a requirement to provide automatic forbearance. However, Dr. DeMarco cautioned that automatic forbearance may not be an appropriate tool. Dr. DeMarco indicated that rather than automatic forbearance, borrowers should communicate with their servicers before being put into forbearance so that the servicer and borrower can work together to determine the best path forward. While Ms. Cohen agreed that borrowers should try to speak with their servicers, she noted that more borrowers are missing payments than requesting forbearance.
Representative William Timmons asked witnesses to comment on whether certain temporary policies adopted in response to COVID-19, such as remote online notarization and additional flexibility regarding appraisals, should be made permanent. Mr. Williams indicated, without specificity, that some of these temporary policies should be made permanent. Dr. Demarco supported extending the temporary flexibility around remote online notarization. Finally, Ms. Cohen noted that there was room for these temporary polices to be made permanent, but that appraisals should remain accurate.
Addressing Racial Disparities
Certain members of the Subcommittee’s majority caucus, including Subcommittee Chairman Green, Committee Chairwoman Waters, and Representative Velazquez highlighted the fact that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx communities. Of the witnesses, Ms. Cohen and Mr. Williams, in particular, suggested that people of color were less likely to receive a forbearance than their white counterparts. For example, Mr. Williams noted that there is currently a 13% gap between Black and White homeowners who receive forbearance. Ms. Cohen, Ms. Griffin, and Mr. Williams all noted that more communication from the federal government regarding forbearance protections, and additional funding to support Black and Latinx communities, such as funding for legal aid and housing counseling services, would help mitigate some of this apparent disparity.
The Subcommittee hearing suggested that servicers have been largely effective in implementing the CARES Act and communicating with borrowers, but that additional work is still needed. Subcommittee Chairman Green, in particular, noted that additional legislation as well as further communication by servicers is needed to ensure all borrowers receive clear and consistent guidance regarding available relief options. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it will be interesting to see what further legislation is promulgated to provide additional relief to borrowers facing financial hardship due to COVID-19.