postings by Alan White

CARES Act mortgage foreclosure and tenant eviction relief

posted by Alan White

The final text of the act is now available here. The foreclosure relief is in Section 4022 and the eviction moratorium is in Section 4024. Mortgage borrowers with federally related loans (FHA, VA, Farmer's Home, Fannie or Freddie) may request 6 months of forbearance, i.e. no payments required, renewable for another 6 months, during which no late fees or penalties may be imposed, but interest continues to run (unlike student loans.) Homeowners need not provide documentation; a certification that they are affected by the COVID-19 crisis is enough. There is no statutory provision for loan modification after the forbearance period ends, so unpaid payments will still be due, but the agencies will likely be requiring or encouraging servicers to offer workouts when the forbearance ends. Section 4023 provides relief for landlords of multifamily buildings with federally related mortgages, conditioned on no evictions. 

The eviction relief is limited to tenants in properties on which there is a federally related mortgage loan, and is only for 4 months. In brief, landlords may not send notices to quit or go forward with evictions. Tenant certifications of hardship are not required. An excellent summary of the eviction moratorium is available at the National Housing Law Project site here. Some states are also imposing eviction moratoria covering more tenants.

CARES ACT student loan relief

posted by Alan White

The CARES Act signed into law last week suspends payments and eliminates interest accrual for all federally-held student loans for six months, through September 30. These measures exclude private loans, privately-held FFEL loans and Perkins loans. The other five subsections of section 3513 mandate important additional relief. Under subsection (c) the six suspended payments (April to September) are treated as paid for purposes of “any loan forgiveness program or loan rehabilitation program” under HEA title IV. In addition to PSLF, this would include loan cancellation at the end of the 20- or 25- year periods for income-dependent repayment. Loan rehabilitation is a vital tool for borrowers to get out of default status (with accompanying collection fees, wage garnishments, tax refund intercepts, and ineligibility for Pell grants) by making nine affordable monthly payments. This subsection seems to offer a path for six of those nine payments to be zero payments during the crisis suspension period.

Subsection (d) protects credit records by having suspended payments reported to credit bureaus as having been made. Subsection (e) suspends all collection on defaulted loans, including wage garnishments, federal tax refund offsets and federal benefit offsets.

Finally, and importantly, subsection (g) requires USED to notify all borrowers by April 11 that payments, interest and collections are suspended temporarily, and then beginning in August, to notify borrowers when payments will restart, and that borrowers can switch to income-driven repayment. This last provision attempts to avert the wave of default experienced after prior crises (hurricanes, etc.) when, after borrowers in affected areas had been automatically put into administrative forbearance, the forbearance period ended and borrowers continued missing payments. Whether the “not less than 6 notices by postal mail, telephone or electronic communication” will actually solve the payment restart problem will depend a great deal not only on the notices but also the capacity of USED servicers to handle the surge of borrower calls and emails. At present servicers are struggling with handling borrower requests because many employees are in lockdown or quarantine.

PSLF in the time of Coronavirus

posted by Alan White

The rules for student loan borrowers hoping for Public Service Loan Forgiveness are changing rapidly, and information even on Education Department and CFPB web sites is confusing and rapidly outdated. The CARES Act, section 3513, signed into law on March 27, requires the Secretary of Education to “suspend all payments due” for federally-held student loans until September 30. The same section provides that interest shall not accrue on any loan for which payments are suspended. The law supersedes the prior Education Department administrative action suspending interest for 60 days. Of special relevance to PSLF, the third subsection provides that “The Secretary shall deem each month for which a loan payment was suspended under this section as if the borrower of the loan had made a payment for the purpose of any loan forgiveness program or loan rehabilitation program.”

The most important advice for borrowers is still to 1) be sure you are in a federal direct loan, using a direct consolidation loan if necessary to get out of FFEL, 2) get on an income-dependent repayment plan and 3) apply to have your IDR monthly payment recalculated now, not next year, if you have any job loss or drop in income.

“Suspending” payments is unfortunate language because it is not an existing repayment status. USED will probably interpret this to mean “forbearance,” rather than “deferment” but no announcement has yet been made. The third possibility is to treat all borrowers as if they were in income-dependent repayment (IDR) with a zero payment. The law also mandates zero interest for the next 6 months, and borrowers report that they are already seeing their interest rate changed to 0% on line. As a practical matter, forbearance with zero interest is similar to deferment or IDR with zero payment. However, months in forbearance would normally not count towards the 120 months required to get PSLF forgiveness, nor for that matter for the 20 or 25 years of payments required for forgiveness at for borrowers in income-dependent payment plans. Because the CARES act mandates that months in “suspension” count, the effect should be more like IDR with zero payment.

The good news is that 3513(c) effectively supersedes the 15-day rule, so early and late payments won't matter for the next 6 months.

The bad news is that a monthly payment does not count towards the 120 required unless the borrower is employed full-time during that month. The CARES Act language could be read to supersede that requirement. Unfortunately my guess is that USED will read 3513(c) to suspend the payment requirement but not the full-time employment requirement. As a practical matter, borrowers just need their employer to certify that they were a full-time employee during the relevant time period, which should include at least paid sick leave. Public servants on unpaid leave may be left out in the cold, as far as PSLF payment counting. USED does have the power under the prior pandemic legislation to waive statutory and regulatory requirements, and we’ll see how generously they choose to interpret this provision.

Borrowers in IDR payment plans are entitled to have their servicer recalculate their monthly payment based on current income if they lose a job or have reduced income. Payment “suspension” for those borrowers could create additional problems. If all federal loans are placed into administrative forbearance, borrowers whose IDR payment is based on job income may not act promptly to have their IDR payment recalculated based on current income.

If this advice is wrong or you have better information or ideas for PSLF borrowers, please comment.

Student loan relief for public service workers: repeal the 15-day rule

posted by Alan White

More than one million public servants – nurses, soldiers, first responders, teachers—should be eligible now or soon for student loan cancellation under existing law – the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Congress and the Administration can accelerate this process now.

The Education Department and its servicer FedLoan have notoriously rejected 98% of PSLF loan cancellation requests. One of the reasons is a pointless and unhelpful regulation that was not part of the Congressional legislation, but was added by the Education Department – the 15-day rule. The PSLF law calls for public servants to have their loans cancelled after 10 years of repayment. The Department’s regulation defined 10 years of repayment as 120 payments, each made within 15 days of the due date. In real life borrowers make payments early and they make payment late. During the present crisis they cannot be expected to meet this rule.

Congress is already considering a bill that would give the Education Secretary broad authority to waive regulations. The 15-day rule should be the first to go. The Department and servicer FedLoan should work together to clear away ALL regulatory obstacles to full PSLF implementation.

600,000 student loan borrowers getting nowhere

posted by Alan White
Student loan borrowers who plan to apply for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)  after ten years of income-based payments are simply not getting their
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https://fsaconferences.ed.gov/conferences/library/2019/2019FSAConfSession18.pdf
payments counted. Between January 2012 and August 2018 nearly one million borrowers submitted an approved public service employer certification. As of August 2019 there are 600,000 of these approved borrowers with ZERO "qualifying" payments towards the required 120.  
 
In the same presentation USED asserts that most (80%) of borrowers who already applied for forgiveness believing they had completed the required ten years of payments had actually entered repayment less than ten years before applying. This explanation suggests that all is well except that borrowers simply need to wait a few more months to apply. The zero qualifying payments problem proves that the PSLF failure goes much deeper, for the reasons I described in a prior post.

What's Wrong with PSLF and How to Fix It

posted by Alan White

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program has so far rejected roughly 99,000 out of 100,000 student loan borrower applicants. Poor Education Department oversight, poor contract design and implementation, and widespread servicing contractor failures are as much to blame as problems in the legislative and regulatory program design. Making this program work to provide loan relief for potentially millions of public servants requires a comprehensive set of fixes. US Ed. could start by enforcing its contracts and compensating its contractors properly, and by relaxing its needlessly strict 15-day on-time payment rule, while Congress could give borrowers credit for all payments made under any repayment plan. In our new white paper summarizing federal agency reports, attorney general and borrower lawsuits, consumer complaints, and contract documents, my research assistant and I survey the various reasons nearly all applications have been denied, and we propose contractual, regulatory and legislative reforms needed to fix PSLF.

USED could have seen PSLF Fail coming

posted by Alan White

The Department of Education (USED) knew by 2016 that hundreds of thousands of student loan borrowers planning to apply for public loan service forgiveness (PSLF) were headed for rejection as they started applying in late 2017. The Department conducted a review of servicing contractor PHEAA’s administration of PSLF on October 25, 2016, about a year before the first cohort of borrowers would become eligible for loan cancellation. At the time of the review, 449,860 borrowers were designated as PSLF participants, presumably because they had at least one approved public service employer certification form (ECF). The reviewers audited a sample of 34 borrower loan files, and found that 53% had ZERO qualifying payments. Of those, about 40% were in a non-qualifying payment plan and 60% had ECFs with employment periods ending more than one year prior to the review date, in other words, no current evidence of qualifying employment. Given that all of these borrowers submitted at least one ECF, it is reasonable to assume that most if not all of them were unaware that they were making no progress towards the required 10 years of repayment.

Instead of faulting PHEAA for a situation in which half of borrowers were in danger of not getting PSLF credit for their payments, USED delved into the minutiae of PSLF payment counting, and found two instances of payment-counting errors resulting from servicing transfers. In their recommendations, the USED reviewers stress “it is imperative that Fedloan Servicing and FSA partner to ensure only those truly eligible for forgiveness receive this benefit.” No mention is made of any need to get in touch with the 53% of borrowers who are in the wrong payment plan or do not have up-to-date employer certifications.

The authors of the October 25, 2016 review (Debbe Johnson, Larry Porter, and Christian Lee Odom of SFA) note on the first page that it is for internal USED use only and is a policy deliberation document, presumably to shield it from FOIA release. It became public when the House Education and Labor Committee released the review as an exhibit to the committee’s October 2019 report on the PSLF fiasco.

$5 to forgive public servant student loans

posted by Alan White

Five dollars is the contract payment the US Education Department makes to its servicer FedLoan for a borrower's first approved Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) employment certification. FedLoan is supposed to review employer certifications, track PSLF borrower payments for ten years, and then process a loan forgiveness application, all for five dollars (plus the servicing fee paid for all loan accounts.) FedLoan must verify that the borrower made each payment on time, in the right payment plan, for the right loan(s), while working for the right employer full time. US Ed. has made FedLoan's task far more difficult than the statute requires, with its 15-day on-time payment regulation and various employer exclusions. The Department needs to seriously rethink its contract design before renewing its 10-year servicing contracts early next year.

The process of matching each payment with a qualifying employment period appears to account for more than half of the astounding 99% denial rate. The Congressional proposals to fix PSLF have largely missed this point, although the House bill calls for one obvious fix by requiring US Ed. to give FedLoan a list or database of qualifying employers. FedLoan's task would be far easier if the on-time payment rule were scrapped, and replaced with a rule that any borrower who made a total of 120 payments in any payment plan without going into default qualifies, so long as they can submit employment verification for the relevant 10 years. Because borrowers submit IRS information to the servicer each year to set an income-based payment amount, another tech fix would have the servicer store the IRS employer identification number (EIN) and match it with a list of approved public service employers, rather than having the student and employer fill out a 10-page employment certification form every year.

US Ed.'s public stance (apart from Secretary DeVos' desire to kill PSLF) is to blame Congress for bad program design, while Congressional overseers can't seem to recognize that PSLF can only work with a comprehensive set of legislative, regulatory, and contractual fixes. Meanwhile the count of student loan borrowers with at least one approved ECF, i.e. future PSLF applicants, is 1.1 million.

 

Student Loan Crisis Driving Racial Wealth Gap

posted by Alan White

Twenty years after taking out student loans, white borrowers have paid 94% of their debt (at the median.)  Black borrowers, on the other hand, have paid 5%. While a disturbing 20% of white borrowers defaulted on student loans at some point during twenty years, a catastrophic 50% of Black borrowers defaulted.

Screen Shot 2019-09-26 at 2.23.21 PM
Inst. on Assets & Soc. Policy

 A new report from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis collates NCES and other data on student borrowers beginning college in 1995-96 to paint a grim picture of student debt burden as a key contributor to the racial wealth gap. As today's students take on far greater debt than the 1990s cohorts, this pernicious effect can only magnify. Cancelling student loan debt could play an important role in closing the gap. Debt cancellation should be judged not by the dollar amounts of debt forgiven for various borrowers, but by the degree of debt burden relieved for borrowers at various income and asset levels, as explained by progressive economist Marshall Steinbaum.

Home Contract Financing and Black Wealth

posted by Alan White

A remarkable new quantitative study finds that over two decades, African American home buyers in Chicago lost between $3 and $4 billion in wealth because of credit apartheid. The study authors from research centers at Duke, UIC and Loyola-Chicago reviewed property records for more than 3,000 Chicago homes. During the 1950s and 1960s, up to 95% of homes sold to black buyers were financed with land installment sale contracts rather than mortgages. Mortgage loans were largely unavailable due to continued redlining by banks and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Instead, a limited group of speculators bought homes for cash and resold them with large price markups to newcomers in the Great Migration. The interest rates for  land installment contracts were several points higher than comparable mortgage loans offered to whites. Thus, black home buyers were overcharged for the home price and the interest rate they paid compared with similar white home buyers. The authors quantify this as a 141% race tax on housing.

Buyers financing homes with installment land contracts also face greater risks of losing their homes and accumulated equity than buyers with a deed and mortgage purchase, for reasons we teach, or ought to teach, in any Property Law or Real Estate class in law school. A missed payment on a land contract can mean quick eviction, while a homeowner behind on a mortgage is protected in many states by foreclosure procedures and redemption rights. More importantly, when a bank, FHA or other lender finances a home, the lender has strong incentives to protect the buyer and itself from defective home conditions or title problems. Those protections are missing from the installment land contract financing structure. The Duke study did not include the cost of premature evictions, home repairs, and title problems experienced by black contract buyers, all of which would further magnify the wealth gap between white and black home buyers. 

The Student Loan Tax

posted by Alan White

Democrats’ policy proposals have sparked a vital and overdue debate on our system to pay for post-secondary education, and how that system burdens and redistributes income. The existing system combines a small share of taxpayer funding (via the Pell Grant) with a large share from the student loan tax. The student loan tax requires the students themselves to pay a percentage of their income for 20 to 25 years, collected not by the IRS but by private contractors for the US Education Department. The Clinton and Obama administrations converted a clunky loan system involving banks and state guarantee agencies into a direct federal “loan” program. The federal government issues funds to colleges and universities, and then outsources to collection contractors to tax the earnings of college grads and noncompleters. Although not all students participate in income-dependent repayment, greater numbers are expected to do so if nothing changes. Not only are student loans different, they are looking less and less like loans at all.

The current system is a tax on future earnings, rather than a true loan program, for several reasons. First, the income-dependent payment programs tie “borrower” payments to their disposable income, and cancel debt at the end of 20 or 25 years. Second, borrowers who are declared in default end up having wages garnished at a fixed percentage of income, as well as tax refunds intercepted, both of which are essentially taxes on earned income (or cancellation of earned income tax credits.) Third, a few (and so far badly administered) loan forgiveness programs allow students to stop repayment after 10 years if they remain in low-paying and socially valued jobs.

When we talk about canceling student loan debt, we are really just talking about how much of college students’ future earnings we will tax. As I have noted previously, some, especially graduate degree holders, repay far more than the cost of their own education, because of above-cost interest rates. Others benefiting from various “forgiveness” programs repay less, at least on a present-value basis.

The problem with costing out a one-time loan cancelation program is that each year a new cohort of students is assigned nearly $100 billion in new federal loans to repay. The combined federal payments under the major loan and grant programs (DL, Perkins and Pell) total about $125 billion annually. The issue going forward is whether to tax individuals and corporations in the present year, or the students in future years, and in what combination. There is also the problem of the disappearing role of states in funding public higher education, a topic I will write about separately.

This is why the policy choices are not binary (full debt cancellation and free college, i.e. 100% taxpayer financing, versus the status quo.) A notable benefit of our expanded policy debate is some real attention to the distributive consequences of major changes in higher education funding. We could, for example, offer new and less onerous income-dependent repayment, taxing a lower percentage of earnings, setting a higher exemption than the poverty level, or shortening the 20-year repayment period. We could, as some have proposed, reduce student repayment even further for borrowers engaged in public service or national service, although as we have seen, defining eligibility categories creates big process costs. We can, and should, abolish “default” and re-evaluate payment obligations for borrowers who did not complete their college education. We could examine the pros and cons of IRS or private contractor collection. The value of elements of our existing system is the ability to apply income progressivity as measured both by students’ pre-college family income as well as their post-graduation income to allocate the burden of their college costs.

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