Emergency Mass. Senate Bill Would Relax Face-to-Face Counseling, Restore Reverse Mortgage Business

A new piece of emergency legislation in the Massachusetts state Senate aimed at providing relief to the housing sector during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic would relax the state’s stringent face-to-face housing counseling requirement, which would have the effect of allowing stalled reverse mortgage business within the state to continue.

The recently-submitted bill, sponsored by the Massachusetts Senate Committee on Ways and Means, specifically determines that video-conferencing can allow counseling to go forward for the duration of the national emergency related to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Counseling provision of the bill

“[F]rom the passage of this act until the termination of the COVID-19 emergency, written certification from a counselor with a third-party organization that a mortgagor has received counseling via a synchronous, real-time video conference in lieu of counseling in person shall satisfy the requirements of [state law],” the bill’s counseling provision reads.

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Because of current local, state and federal guidelines in place encouraging social distancing to attempt to mitigate the spread of the virus, face-to-face counseling could not take place. Because Massachusetts requires face-to-face counseling for reverse mortgage transactions to go forward, business was effectively put on hold in that part of the country.

“The bill […] includes language to assist people applying for a reverse mortgage, enabling them to receive counseling via real-time video conference rather than in person, an apparent effort to facilitate the social distancing measures that public officials say are critical to slowing the virus’ spread,” writes Michael P. Norton of the State House News Service via Telegram.com.

Relief at a critical time

George Downey and Brett Kirkpatrick of Harbor Mortgage Solutions in Braintree, Mass. support the bill, which has seen a group working to support its passage including members of the Massachusetts Mortgage Bankers Association (MMBA), the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association (NRMLA) and local stakeholders.

When asked if video conferencing might create some additional issues for senior clientele, Downey said that there may be some issues but that seniors are more technologically-inclined than some think.

“Seniors’ understanding or having access to the technology is a consideration for some, however increasing numbers are becoming tech savvy,” Downey said. “Additionally, each town in Massachusetts has a Council on Aging (Senior Center) that can provide computer access and assistance. Or, family members or others can step in to help. Clearly, [video-conferencing is] not as easy as the telephone, but a good bridge to provide the counselor with a visual connection during the emergency.”

While some seniors may have to resume waiting if they’re unable to engage in video conferencing, or if they prefer to conduct counseling in-person, the bill provides necessary relief for the seniors looking to access their home equity during the coronavirus crisis, Kirkpatrick adds.

“Under the circumstances, we are trying to bring the greatest good to the largest number of seniors – at a time when all Massachusetts residents are being asked to remain at home,” Kirkpatrick says. “The result would be to re-open access to a safe and guaranteed asset – housing wealth – at a time of critical urgency.”

Other provisions

The bill also contains provisions which are aimed at curbing what it defines as “non-essential eviction actions,” providing temporary protections for renters and homeowners that face the risk of displacement due to the ongoing economic impact of the crisis.

The bill has not been voted on by the full Senate as of Wednesday evening, though many lawmakers in the state are not convening due to the virus.

“Both branches meet at 11:00 a.m. Thursday and since most lawmakers are staying away from [the state capitol] to comply with social distancing guidelines, a quorum will not be present and any bills that do advance will need the support of all members present,” writes Chris Lisinski for the State House News Service via the Dorchester Reporter.

Read the text of the proposed bill at the Massachusetts State Legislature.

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