A new in-depth investigation on foreclosure actions related to reverse mortgages published late Tuesday by USA Today paints a bleak picture surrounding the activities and practices of the reverse mortgage industry, but also relates some questionable and out-of-date information in key areas highlighted by the investigation, according to industry participants who spoke with RMD.
The investigative piece was the first in a new series of articles released by the outlet, touching on subjects including “questions to ask before getting a reverse mortgage,” ways to “fix” the reverse mortgage program, and details on how reverse mortgages work.
Referring to a wave of reverse mortgage foreclosures that predominantly affected urban African-American neighborhoods as a “stealth aftershock of the Great Recession,” the investigative article focuses on nearly 100,000 foreclosed reverse mortgages as having “failed,” and affecting the financial futures of the borrowers, negatively impacting the property values in the neighborhoods that surround the foreclosed properties.
In a related article, the publication details the various sources from which it drew information and the methodologies used to reach their conclusions, including some of the challenges involved in such an analysis.
The article authors detailed the ways in which they went about their information gathering, which included inquiries of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). However, some of the interpretations based on that data are largely out of date, according to sources who spoke with RMD about the coverage.
A major component of the USA Today investigation revolved around a non-borrowing spouse who was taken off of the liened property’s title in order to allow for the couple’s access to a higher level of proceeds in 2010. When the borrowing husband passed away in 2016, the lender instituted a foreclosure action that has resulted in the non-borrowing wife having to vacate the property.
“Even when both husband and wife are old enough to qualify, reverse mortgage lenders often advise them to remove the younger spouse from loans and titles,” the article reads. The article does not address protections implemented in 2015 to address non-borrowing spouse issues.
In 2015, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) released a series of guidelines that were designed to strengthen protection for non-borrowing spouses in reverse mortgage transactions. In the revised guidelines, lenders were allowed to defer foreclosure for certain eligible non-borrowing spouses for HECM case numbers assigned before or after August 4, 2014.
Lenders are also allowed to proceed with submitting claims on HECMs with eligible surviving non-borrowing spouses by assigning the affected HECM to HUD upon the death of the last surviving borrower, where the HECM would not otherwise be assignable to FHA as part of a Mortgagee Optional Election Assignment (MOE).
A lender may also proceed by allowing claim payment following the sale of the property by heirs or the borrower’s estate, or by foreclosing in accordance with the terms of the mortgage and filing an insurance claim under the FHA insurance contract as endorsed.
Foreclosure vs. eviction
“A foreclosure is a failure, no matter the trigger,” said one of the article’s sources.
Multiple sources who wished to remain unnamed told RMD that positioning a foreclosure as a “failure” of the reverse mortgage is itself misleading particularly when taking a borrower’s specific circumstances into account, and that the article appears to, at times, conflate the terms “foreclosure” and “eviction.” One of the USA Today article’s own sources also added a perspective on a perceived incongruity between the use of the terms.
“There is a difference between foreclosure and eviction that isn’t really explained in the article,” said Dr. Stephanie Moulton, associate professor of public policy at Ohio State University in an email to RMD. “We would need to know the proportion of foreclosed loans that ended because of death of the borrower, versus other reasons for being called due and payable (including tax and insurance default).”
HECM evolution since the Great Recession
One of the factual issues underlying some of the ideas of the article is that it presents older problems of the HECM program in a modern context, without addressing many of the most relevant changes that have been made to the program in the years since many of the profiled loans were originated, particularly during a volatile period for the American housing market: the Great Recession.
This was observed by both industry participants, as well as Moulton.
“The other thing to keep in mind about this particular time period is the collapse of home values underlying HECMs that exacerbated crossover risk—which would increase the rate of both types of foreclosures,” Moulton said. “And, this was prior to many of the changes that have been made to protect borrowers and shore up the program, including limits on upfront draws, second appraisal rules, and financial assessment of borrowers.”
This includes the aforementioned protections instituted for non-borrowing spouses, in addition to changes including the addition of a financial assessment (FA) regulation designed to reduce persistent defaults, especially those related to tax-and-insurance defaults that regularly afflicted the HECM program in years prior to its implementation. These newer protections received only cursory mention in the USA Today article.
The National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association (NRMLA) is preparing an industry response to the ideas and conclusions presented by USA Today, according to a statement made to RMD.
“A reverse mortgage is one potential and essential component for many Americans seeking to fund retirement,” said Steve Irwin, executive vice president of NRMLA in a call with RMD. “NRMLA and its members are committed to working with all stakeholders to continually improve the HECM program. NRMLA is developing a response to the piece.”
Read the full investigative article at USA Today.