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U.S. consumer watchdog to adopt rules to help struggling homeowners, with some exclusions

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The U.S. consumer watchdog in the coming weeks will adopt a rule requiring mortgage servicers to give struggling homeowners until next year to resume repayments, but is expected to carve out some groups of borrowers following industry pushback, four people with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in April proposed, among other measures, a new review process that would generally prohibit mortgage servicers from starting a foreclosure until after Dec. 31, 2021. The rule will throw a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of homeowners due to exit COVID-19 mortgage holiday or “forbearance” programs in the coming months.

Mortgage servicers receive payments from borrowers and pass them on to investors, tax authorities and insurers.

The CFPB plans to finalize the rule and make it effective before the end of August, but has agreed to carve out certain groups of borrowers after the industry said the proposal was too broad and beyond the CFPB’s legal remit, three of sources said.

A CFPB spokesperson said the agency is working on finalizing the proposal but did not comment on what exclusions had been agreed to.

“We remain committed to working with both servicers and homeowners to prevent avoidable foreclosures to the maximum extent possible,” the spokesperson added.

The borrowers expected to be carved-out, which has not previously been reported, include those in the process of negotiating an arrangement with their servicer to avoid foreclosure but who have not yet applied to be put into forbearance, the same three people said.

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It is also expected to exclude borrowers who may have abandoned their homes without trying to notify their servicers and those who do not respond to multiple inquiries from servicers about whether they wish to remain in their homes.

The CFPB agreed to the exemptions to limit the compliance burden for some servicers and give them more flexibility to help customers, the four sources said. They said the rule will also not apply to small servicers with limited market share that are less able to absorb the compliance costs.

The sources, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, include a regulatory official and industry lawyers and executives involved in the discussions.

“The Bureau’s rules achieve two aims: mandating some additional help for struggling borrowers who have a plan to stay in their homes, while also creating clear exemptions to help servicers maintain the steady supply of homes the market demands,” said Michael Bright, CEO of the Structured Finance Association, which represents the mortgage securitization industry and was among the groups that pushed for the exemptions.

Foreclosure crisis

To help Americans weather pandemic lockdowns, Congress last year gave struggling homeowners the right to pause mortgage repayments and imposed a moratorium on foreclosures.

As of June 14, an estimated 2 million homeowners were in forbearance, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Around 900,000 of those forbearance plans are due to expire later this year, industry data provider Black Knight estimates.

CFPB staff are worried existing regulatory tools will not provide sufficient help for homeowners who have suffered a permanent disruption of income as a result of the pandemic.

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They hope the new rule would prevent a wave of foreclosures by raising the burden of “reasonable effort” a servicer makes to help struggling borrowers, one of the sources said.

At the same time, “the agency wants to make sure struggling consumers know that they can’t just put their head in the sand until December 31” and should reach out to their servicer for help, said the regulatory official.

“And to servicers: we’re watching you, but we want to achieve the best outcomes for business and borrowers.”

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