Mortgage Banking – The MERS Alternative to Vacant-Property Registration Ordinances

Robert Klein, CEO of Safeguard Properties, contributed an article to Mortgage Banking magazine about the impact that the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS) is having on the management of REO and bank-owned vacant properties across the country.

The MERS Alternative to Vacant-Property Registration Ordinances

The hopeful news of 2009 is that many indicators point to the likelihood that the U.S. economy may finally have scraped bottom and could be heading upward.

The stock market has seen fairly steady gains since it hit its early-March low. The Wall Street Journal reported that the number of workers filing state unemployment claims at the beginning of June fell by its largest amount since November 2001. And RealtyTrac Inc., Irvine, California, reported that in May, foreclosure filings decreased by 6 percent from the previous month.

Now for the more sobering news. The Wall Street Journal reported that new jobless claims increased slightly from May to June. In June, Standard & Poor’s (S&P), New York, downgraded ratings for 22 banks nationwide, expecting loan losses to worsen before they improve. And the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reported in late May that the level of foreclosures started in the first quarter of 2009 hit a record high.

What does this all mean? Even though the economy is showing some glimmers of recovery, high rates of default and foreclosure are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. As a result, cities around the country will continue to struggle with the challenges that vacant properties pose in their communities.

A proliferation of vacant-property registration ordinances

To address the problems associated with vacant properties — from vandalism and crime to safety and maintenance issues — cities across the country have been considering or enacting vacant-property registration ordinances.

From the municipality’s perspective, the goal in enacting ordinances is to have the ability to track down a contact to serve notice when code violations occur and to hold that party responsible when violations go unresolved for periods of time.

In part, registration ordinances attempt to fix a problem with property records across the country. In many cases those records are not up-to-date, and usually they don’t identify a property-preservation contact within the lender or servicer organization responsible for a vacant property. As a result, when cities issue code-violation notices based on public records, the notices go unheeded for long periods of time because they either fail to reach the right person or take a long time getting there.

From a servicer’s perspective, the basic notion of vacant-property registration ordinances is positive — by registering vacant properties, lenders and servicers are more likely to receive prompt notification when issues arise with properties. This allows them to address problems quickly, preserve the value of their collateral asset, and avoid both negative community backlash and potentially expensive fines for failure to comply with code requirements.

The concern with vacant-property ordinances among ser-vicers is the administrative challenge of complying with potentially thousands of different municipal ordinances around the country. The more ordinances — and more individual nuances — the more resources will be needed and the greater the risk of fees and penalties for failing to comply.

Finding common ground

Municipalities and servicers share common interests with regard to vacant properties. Both have an interest in ensuring that properties are well maintained, safe and secure. Both benefit when cities have accurate and updated contact infor-mation to serve notice when issues arise.

A few years ago, MBA took an important first step in providing contact information to cities when it posted property-preservation contacts for major mortgage servicers on its Web site for code-enforcement officials to access. While that was helpful, not enough cities were aware of the resource, and both city code-enforcement officials and servicers recognized a need to do more.

In 2008, MBA convened a Vacant Property Registration (VPR) Committee, comprised of lenders, mortgage servicers and the field servicers who represent them. The committee met by phone on a weekly basis for nearly a year, and also met with mayors and other officials in cities that were considering vacant-property legislation.

The committee listened carefully to the cities’ concerns, and offered insights regarding the challenges they face to inspect, secure and maintain growing numbers of vacant properties throughout the country.

In 2008, representatives from MBA and the VPR Committee were invited to address the U.S. Conference of Mayors, describing the challenges of securing and maintaining vacant properties in cities across the country, and listening to the feedback of mayors.

At the June 2009 U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Annual Meeting, MBA and VPR Committee representatives were again invited and had the opportunity to update mayors on their efforts.

The mayors received a briefing on the committee’s solution — now referred to as “The MERS Initiative.” This initiative is a collaboration between MBA and the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS), Reston, Virginia. Working with MBA, MERS developed a process by which government entities across the country can have access to the MERS system, which contains information on more than 60 million loans through more than 2,500 lenders that use the system. The MERS system was enhanced to store property-preservation contact information for the properties registered on the system.

MERS implementation under way nationally

In the fall of 2008, the committee enlisted five municipalities to serve as pilots for the program: Chula Vista, Sacramento County and Stockton in California; Boston; and St. Louis.

Code-enforcement officials who used the system reported that they were impressed with quality and quantity of data available to them. The pilot was deemed a success and the MERS Initiative was officially launched in late spring. To date, hundreds of cities have signed on to the program.

In many cases, the cities signing on are utilizing the MERS system and their vacant-property registration ordinances in tandem. Those cities will consider a loan servicer compliant with their vacant-property ordinances if their properties are registered on the MERS system. The vacant-property ordinances remain in place for properties that are not registered on the system — primarily those in the hands of property “flippers” and non-responsive property owners who fail to act responsibly.

Even though a majority of loan servicers are members of MERS, not all of their loans are currently on the system. To motivate servicers to register all of their loans, MERS has developed special registration products and incentives for servicers to register their full portfolios on the system.

A valuable resource for cities

The MERS system is proving to be a valuable tool for resource-challenged cities, especially those with the highest volumes of vacant and abandoned properties.

With access to MERS, cities don’t have to create a registration system from the ground up. They have free access to an existing system and receive free training for their users. They have a system that is proven and uniform across the country. That uniformity helps to ensure that servicers can more readily comply with registration requirements. And the system reduces administration and paperwork, because cities can exempt the vast majority of MERS-registered lenders and servicers from additional registration requirements and target their resources to address the most challenging issues.

Those familiar with the Pareto principle recognize that 20 percent of an organization’s most challenging needs consume 80 percent of its resources, while the other 80 percent require only 20 percent of its resources. This is the advantage of resource allocation that the MERS system provides to cities.

No one expects the MERS system alone will address all of the challenges regarding vacant and abandoned properties for municipalities and servicers. But the initiative is a tremendous example of what can be accomplished when interested parties come together in a spirit of collaboration to solve a problem.

In this case, success was built on three proven strategies:

  • Engaging in dialogue and identifying mutual interests. MBA took the initiative to form a Vacant Property Registration Committee that reached out to cities and code-enforcement officials to understand their concerns. In turn, the cities were open to better understanding the challenges faced by servicers.
  • Building on proven success. Instead of building individual registration processes from the ground up, cities have immediate and free access to a proven system that will allow them to address vacant-property issues more immediately and effectively.
  • Maximizing limited resources. By offering cities an efficient process to track properties that are being managed responsibly, code-enforcement officials can focus their attention on the properties that are the most challenging to them.

No one knows when the current housing crisis will subside, but until it does, municipalities and servicers have demonstrated their willingness and commitment to face the challenges together. As an industry, we are especially grateful to the code-enforcement community for its partnership and collaboration in producing the MERS initiative.

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CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER

Alan Jaffa

Alan Jaffa is the chief executive officer for Safeguard, steering the company as the mortgage field services industry leader. He also serves on the board of advisors for SCG Partners, a middle-market private equity fund focused on diversifying and expanding Safeguard Properties’ business model into complimentary markets.

Alan joined Safeguard in 1995, learning the business from the ground up. He was promoted to chief operating officer in 2002, and was named CEO in May 2010. His hands-on experience has given him unique insights as a leader to innovate, improve and strengthen Safeguard’s processes to assure that the company adheres to the highest standards of quality and customer service.

Under Alan’s leadership, Safeguard has grown significantly with strategies that have included new and expanded services, technology investments that deliver higher quality and greater efficiency to clients, and strategic acquisitions. He takes a team approach to process improvement, involving staff at all levels of the organization to address issues, brainstorm solutions, and identify new and better ways to serve clients.

In 2008, Alan was recognized by Crain’s Cleveland Business in its annual “40-Under-40” profile of young leaders. He also was named a NEO Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year® finalist in 2013.

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Chief Operating Officer

Michael Greenbaum

Michael Greenbaum is the chief operating officer for Safeguard. Mike has been instrumental in aligning operations to become more efficient, effective, and compliant with our ever-changing industry requirements. Mike has a proven track record of excellence, partnership and collaboration at Safeguard. Under Mike’s leadership, all operational departments of Safeguard have reviewed, updated and enhanced their business processes to maximize efficiency and improve quality control.

Mike joined Safeguard in July 2010 as vice president of REO and has continued to take on additional duties and responsibilities within the organization, including the role of vice president of operations in 2013 and then COO in 2015.

Mike built his business career in supply-chain management, operations, finance and marketing. He has held senior management and executive positions with Erico, a manufacturing company in Solon, Ohio; Accel, Inc., a packaging company in Lewis Center, Ohio; and McMaster-Carr, an industrial supply company in Aurora, Ohio.

Before entering the business world, Mike served in the U.S. Army, Ordinance Branch, and specialized in supply chain management. He is a distinguished graduate of West Point (U.S. Military Academy), where he majored in quantitative economics.

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CHEIF INFORMATION OFFICER

George Mehok

George Mehok is the chief information officer for Safeguard. He is responsible for all strategic technology decisions, new systems deployments and data center operations supporting a national network of more than 10,000 mobile workers.

George has more than 20 years of leadership experience dedicated to high-growth companies in the mobile telecommunications and financial services industries, spanning startups to global industry leaders.

George played a senior role in the formation of Verizon Wireless, leading the IT product development and strategic planning team. He led the integration planning for the Verizon merger including: GTE, Vodafone-AirTouch, Bell Atlantic Mobile and PrimeCo.

As chief information officer at Revol Wireless, a VC-backed CDMA wireless communications network operator, George’s team implemented an integrated technology infrastructure and award-winning business intelligence platform.

George holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics from Eastern Michigan University and an M.B.A. from The Ohio State University. He is a board member of Akron University’s School of Business Center for Information Technology, in addition to an advisory board member for OHTec.

In 2013, George won the Crain’s Cleveland Business CIO of the Year award for his team’s work in completing a major acquisition and technology transformation at Safeguard. In 2015, George’s team was recognized by InformationWeek’s annual Elite 100 ranking of the most innovative U.S.-based users of business technology. The mobile inspection technology developed at Safeguard was selected as InformationWeek’s “One of the top 20 ideas to steal in 2015”.

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General Counsel and Executive Vice President

Linda Erkkila, Esq.

Linda Erkkila is the general counsel and executive vice president for Safeguard, with oversight responsibilities for the legal, human resources, training, compliance and audit departments. Linda’s broad scope of oversight covers regulatory issues that impact Safeguard’s operations, pro-active risk mitigation, enterprise strategic planning, human capital and training initiatives, compliance and audit services, litigation and claims management, and counsel related to mergers, acquisition and joint ventures.

Linda’s oversight of the legal department along with multiple compliance and human capital focused departments assures that Safeguard’s strategic initiatives align with its resources, leverage opportunities across the company, and contemplate compliance mandates. Her practice spans almost 20 years, and Linda’s experience, both as outside and in-house counsel, covers a wide range of corporate matters, including regulatory disclosure, corporate governance compliance, risk assessment, executive compensation, litigation management, and merger and acquisition activity. Her experience at a former Fortune 500 financial institution during the subprime crisis helped develop Linda’s pro-active approach to change management during periods of heightened regulatory scrutiny.

Linda previously served as vice president and attorney for National City Corporation, as securities and corporate governance counsel for Agilysys Inc., and as an associate at Thompson Hine LLP. She earned her JD at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Linda holds a degree in economics from Miami University and an MBA. In 2017, Linda was named as both a “Woman of Influence” by HousingWire and as a “Leading Lady” by MReport.

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Chief Financial Officer

Joe Iafigliola

Joe Iafigliola is the Chief Financial Officer for Safeguard. Joe is responsible for oversight of the Control, Quality Assurance, Accounting and Information Security departments, and is a Managing Director of SCG Partners, a middle-market private equity fund focused on diversifying and expanding Safeguard Properties’ business model into complimentary markets.

Joe has been in a wide variety of roles in finance, supply chain management, information systems development, and sales and marketing. His career includes senior positions with McMaster-Carr Supply Company, Newell/Rubbermaid, and Procter and Gamble.

Joe has an MBA from The Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, is a Certified Management Accountant (CMA), and holds a bachelor’s degree from The Ohio State University’s Honors Accounting program.

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AVP, High Risk and Investor Compliance

Steve Meyer

Steve Meyer is the assistant vice president of high risk and investor compliance for Safeguard. In this role, Steve is responsible for managing our clients’ conveyance processes, Safeguard’s investor compliance team and developing our working relationships with cities and municipalities around the country. He also works directly with our clients in our many outreach efforts and he represents Safeguard at a number of industry conferences each year.

Steve joined Safeguard in 1998 as manager over the hazard claims team. He was instrumental in the development and creation of policies, procedures and operating protocol. Under Steve’s leadership, the department became one of the largest within Safeguard. In 2002, he assumed responsibility for the newly-formed high risk department, once again building its success. Steve was promoted to director over these two areas in 2007, and he was promoted to assistant vice president in 2012.

Prior to joining Safeguard, Steve spent 10 years within the insurance industry, holding a number of positions including multi-line property adjuster, branch claims supervisor, and multi-line and subrogation/litigation supervisor. Steve is a graduate of Grove City College.

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AVP, Operations

Jennifer Jozity

Jennifer Jozity is the assistant vice president of operations, overseeing inspections, REO and property preservation for Safeguard. Jen ensures quality work is performed in the field and internally, to meet and exceed our clients’ expectations. Jen has demonstrated the ability to deliver consistent results in order audit and order management.  She will build upon these strengths in order to deliver this level of excellence in both REO and property preservation operations.

Jen joined Safeguard in 1997 and was promoted to director of inspections operations in 2009 and assistant vice president of inspections operations in 2012.

She graduated from Cleveland State University with a degree in business.

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AVP, Finance

Jennifer Anspach

Jennifer Anspach is the assistant vice president of finance for Safeguard. She is responsible for the company’s national workforce of approximately 1,000 employees. She manages recruitment strategies, employee relations, training, personnel policies, retention, payroll and benefits programs. Additionally, Jennifer has oversight of the accounts receivable and loss functions formerly within the accounting department.

Jennifer joined the company in April 2009 as a manager of accounting and finance and a year later was promoted to director. She was named AVP of human capital in 2014. Prior to joining Safeguard, she held several management positions at OfficeMax and InkStop in both operations and finance.

Jennifer is a graduate of Youngstown State University. She was named a Crain’s Cleveland Business Archer Award finalist for HR Executive of the Year in 2017.

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AVP, Application Architecture

Rick Moran

Rick Moran is the assistant vice president of application architecture for Safeguard. Rick is responsible for evolving the Safeguard IT systems. He leads the design of Safeguard’s enterprise application architecture. This includes Safeguard’s real-time integration with other systems, vendors and clients; the future upgrade roadmap for systems; and standards designed to meet availability, security, performance and goals.

Rick has been with Safeguard since 2011. During that time, he has led the system upgrades necessary to support Safeguard’s growth. In addition, Rick’s team has designed and implemented several innovative systems.

Prior to joining Safeguard, Rick was director of enterprise architecture at Revol Wireless, a privately held CDMA Wireless provider in Ohio and Indiana, and operated his own consulting firm providing services to the manufacturing, telecommunications, and energy sectors.

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AVP, Technology Infrastructure and Cloud Services

Steve Machovina

Steve Machovina is the assistant vice president of technology infrastructure and cloud services for Safeguard. He is responsible for the overall management and design of Safeguard’s hybrid cloud infrastructure. He manages all technology engineering staff who support data centers, telecommunications, network, servers, storage, service monitoring, and disaster recovery.

Steve joined Safeguard in November 2013 as director of information technology operations.

Prior to joining Safeguard, Steve was vice president of information technology at Revol Wireless, a privately held wireless provider in Ohio and Indiana. He also held management positions with Northcoast PCS and Corecomm Communications, and spent nine years as a Coast Guard officer and pilot.

Steve holds a BBA in management information systems from Kent State University in Ohio and an MBA from Wayne State University in Michigan.

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AVP, Mobile and Analytics

Jason Heckman

Jason Heckman is the assistant vice president of mobile and analytics for Safeguard. He is responsible for both Safeguard’s mobile development and strategy as well as the company’s data warehousing and business intelligence. Jason oversees the design, development and release of all Safeguard’s internally developed mobile applications. He also oversees the development and delivery of operational and analytical data technologies throughout the organization.

Jason joined Safeguard as manager of mobile in 2012. During that time he led the development and integration of Safeguard’s mobile applications across the company’s vendor network to provide real-time data from the field. In 2014, he was promoted to director of mobile applications and named assistant vice president in 2017.

Prior to joining Safeguard, Jason was the director of application development and business intelligence for Revol Wireless, a privately held wireless provider in Ohio and Indiana.

Jason holds a bachelor’s degree in business management from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

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AVP, Business Development

Tim Rath

Tim Rath is the AVP of business development for Safeguard. He is responsible for developing innovative growth strategies for Safeguard and developing and overseeing potential partnerships, mergers and acquisitions.

Tim joined Safeguard in 2011 as project director and has filled numerous roles within Vendor Management, most recently serving as director of vendor management, a role he assumed in 2011.

Prior to Safeguard, Tim worked as director of supply chain at PartsSource Inc. in Aurora, Ohio, a provider of medical replacement parts, procurement solutions and healthcare supply chain management technology services. He also has held sales positions with Rexel, ComDoc, and Pier Associates, all based in Ohio.

Tim holds a degree in marketing and sales from The University of Akron in Akron, Ohio. He also earned his FAA Certified Commercial UAS (Drone) Pilot license in 2017.