Lenders working harder to help GIs keep homes
Since 2005, I have served as president of the Housing Policy Council, a trade group focused on national policy issues affecting the mortgage industry. Earlier in my career, I was a submarine officer in the Navy and later had the honor of serving as secretary of the Navy. On an early visit to a naval base as secretary in 1994, I got a firsthand look at the essential quality-of-life issues facing our young servicemembers and their families.
My wife, Margaret, and I were in Hawaii for a routine visit to military installations. Margaret spent these trips visiting with military families and observing life on the bases. On this trip, what Margaret saw left her on the verge of tears. One enlisted sailor’s base housing was so dilapidated with a leaky roof that you could see through to the sky. Housing conditions were similar throughout the base and across the ranks. Margaret and I knew that servicemembers and their families deserved better. We vowed to do something about it upon returning to Washington.
Shortly after I met with Defense Secretary Bill Perry and presented him with these facts: Sailors and Marines were in need of our help, and they deserved to have decent housing. He recognized this as a priority, and we were able to designate $100 million dollars to be spent over the next two years to improve military family housing.
Nothing made me more proud. A home is a sanctuary and the foundation of family life.
Twenty years later, many active-duty servicemembers are now in need of a different type of assistance. Frequent station transfers — particularly in times of war — coupled with the economic downturn have created mounting financial stress on military families. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) is a law intended to minimize financial stress on servicemembers while they are on active duty, including providing protections from foreclosure, capping interest rates at 6 percent to debt incurred prior to active service and protection from the filing of default judgments.
Because more servicemembers are facing financial difficulties, the member companies of The Financial Services Roundtable and the Housing Policy Council recognized that they have to strengthen and expand their efforts to assist their military customers. They understand that they must not only meet the requirements of SCRA, but work to provide better overall services. Several of our member companies have proactively instituted military customer service units that are led and staffed by veterans, developed military-specific products and services, and established SCRA compliance departments to better coordinate across all business lines. Our members are committed to strengthening their focus on issues facing servicemembers, including compliance with SCRA.
In order to ensure that a servicemember receives certain benefits, the SCRA requires servicemembers to inform their financial services company of their active-duty status and submit official military orders. At the same time, companies should and are strengthening their efforts to communicate with their military customers and help to ensure SCRA coverage.
Working with stakeholders such as the Department of Defense and the Office of Servicemember Affairs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), our members have established a working group to anticipate and address distinct military customer hardships and improve compliance with SCRA.
First, a military customer service Web page has been created at www.fsround.org that provides toll-free phone numbers and military customer service products and programs offered by many of our member companies.
Second, to speed identification of SCRA-eligible servicemembers, our members have worked with the DOD to create a one-page active-duty short form that captures key active-duty status information to convey to their financial services company. Implementation of the form is under way. I urge active-duty servicemembers to inquire with their personal financial managers for details on the form.
Third, the Housing Policy Council is the founder of the HOPE NOW Alliance, a nonprofit foreclosure-prevention and education organization made up of mortgage servicers, nonprofit housing counselors, investors and other mortgage market participants. HOPE NOW has added servicemember issues as a top priority and is working closely with DOD and the CFPB to conduct military outreach events, held on bases, to communicate and educate foreclosure-prevention and housing workout options available to military homeowners facing a permanent change of station.
Servicemembers and their families face distinct hardships but, through two-way communication and continued coordination, home life can be made easier. As I believed in 1994, I believe today that we can meet this distinct challenge, too.