The Next Crisis for Puerto Rico: A Crush of Foreclosures

Industry Update
December 16, 2017
 

Puerto Rico has had an awful decade — and it’s about to get worse.

First came a brutal 10-year recession and financial crisis that drove businesses from this island and left 44 percent of the population impoverished. Then, in September, Hurricane Maria, a powerful Category 4 storm, shredded buildings, wrecked the electrical power grid and possibly led to more than 1,000 deaths.

Now Puerto Rico is bracing for another blow: a housing meltdown that could far surpass the worst of the foreclosure crisis that devastated Phoenix, Las Vegas, Southern California and South Florida in the past decade. If the current numbers hold, Puerto Rico is headed for a foreclosure epidemic that could rival what happened in Detroit, where abandoned homes became almost as plentiful as occupied ones.

About one-third of the island’s 425,000 homeowners are behind on their mortgage payments to banks and Wall Street firms that previously bought up distressed mortgages. Tens of thousands have not made payments for months. Some 90,000 borrowers became delinquent as a consequence of Hurricane Maria, according to Black Knight Inc., a data firm formerly known as Black Knight Financial Services.

Puerto Rico’s 35 percent foreclosure and delinquency rate is more than double the 14.4 percent national rate during the depths of the housing implosion in January 2010. And there is no prospect of the problem’s solving itself or quickly.

“If there is no income, the people cannot make payments,” said Ricardo Ramos-González, coordinator of a consumer legal aid clinic at the University of Puerto Rico School of Law. “Thousands have lost their jobs, thousands of small business have closed, and thousands more have left the country.”

At the moment, dealing with a mortgage lender about a missed payment may be a distant concern for many of the 3.4 million people in Puerto Rico. They are literally still picking up the pieces, struggling to live without electricity or trying to get insurance companies to pay claims to repair their homes. More than 100,000 people are believed to have left to go live with friends and family on the mainland.

Residents won a reprieve when the federal government imposed a temporary moratorium on foreclosures, which stops banks and investors that bought mortgages at cut-rate prices from evicting delinquent borrowers or starting new foreclosures. Many lenders also have agreed to waive missed payments during the moratorium.

“We will see an avalanche of cases,” said Josue Castellanos-Otero, a lawyer, who said many of his housing clients were focused on getting insurance companies to pay to fix their damaged homes.

Repairing the housing market in Puerto Rico will take more than rebuilding storm-damaged homes and the electrical grid. It will involve banks and investors reworking tens of thousands of troubled mortgages and waiving missed payments.

The looming housing crisis threatens to upend the social structure on the island and means the aftereffects of the storm will be felt for years to come. It could be particularly painful for the elderly, who often have limited incomes and whose homes tend to be their most valuable assets.

Even before the storm, Puerto Rico was mired in a severe housing slump. Home prices over the past decade have fallen by 25 percent, and lenders have foreclosed or filed to foreclose on 60,000 home loans, according to the Puerto Rico state court system. Last year, there were 7,682 court-ordered foreclosures — a roughly 33 percent increase from 2007. Some 13,000 foreclosure cases are pending, Black Knight estimates.

And that is how Wall Street got into the mix.

Bargain Hunters

In the past several years, a slew of bargain-hunting banks, hedge funds and other financial institutions descended on Puerto Rico to scoop up distressed residential mortgages and foreclosed homes. The list includes big investment banks like Credit Suisse and Goldman Sachs and smaller boutiques including Perella Weinberg and an affiliate of the private-equity firm TPG Capital, which is an investor in a Cayman Islands mortgage investment company.

The recent devastation is likely to further depress housing prices. That’s partly because the “mass exodus” of Puerto Ricans going to the continental United States means the demand for housing “has gone down substantially,” said Laurie Goodman, director of the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center.

If normal patterns held, that would be bad news for the investment firms that gambled on Puerto Rico’s housing market. But normal patterns don’t necessarily apply here, given that some mortgages are guaranteed by a federal insurance fund.

Consider Blackstone Group, the big private equity firm. Blackstone owns a company, Finance of America Reverse, that specializes in a type of home loan called a reverse mortgage, which is guaranteed by the federal government.

The loans are a way for people 62 or older to tap the equity they have built up in their homes; the principal and interest are payable when the borrower dies. The loans require borrowers to keep paying taxes and homeowner’s insurance on a property. Reverse mortgages have a history of abuse. Lenders often don’t fully explain the loans’ terms.

There are 10,000 reverse mortgages in Puerto Rico, and Finance of America controls about 40 percent of the market, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the government insurance fund that guarantees a lender will be repaid on a reverse mortgage.

If Finance of America sells a foreclosed home for less than the value of the mortgage, the firm can make a claim to the insurance fund to make up the difference. In that case, taxpayers would be on the hook

Court records show that the Blackstone-controlled company is aggressive in its pursuit of — and foreclosures on — borrowers.

Since 2015, Finance of America and a predecessor firm have filed 500 foreclosures in federal court.

José González-López “feels harassed” after Finance of America initiated a foreclosure case against him for the third time in two years, according to his lawyer, Juan Carlos Cancio-Reichard. He said the first two cases had been dismissed after the lender incorrectly claimed Mr. González-López, 73, had not paid for homeowner’s insurance on the property.

Now Finance of America has claimed Mr. González-López did not pay property taxes on the house — something the borrower disputes. Mr. Cancio-Reichard said his client had recently gotten the Puerto Rico Treasury Department to certify there were no unpaid taxes on his account. The lawyer is asking Finance of America’s lawyer to voluntarily dismiss the case.

“José thinks they want to get him out of the house,” Mr. Cancio-Reichard said.

Sara Sefcovic, a Finance of America spokeswoman, said the firm could not speak about specific cases, but “foreclosure is a last resort for our company.”

She added that the firm is “required to follow federal guidelines for this program and have virtually no discretion over whether or not to initiate a foreclosure proceeding.”

To file a foreclosure for any reason other than the death of the borrower, a reverse mortgage lender must get approval from an outside mortgage-servicing firm working for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Over the past three years, the department has given more than 1,500 such approvals to reverse mortgage lenders in Puerto Rico.

English Only

Many offshore lenders like Finance of America file foreclosure lawsuits in federal court in San Juan, where proceedings move much faster than in the island’s territorial courts.

It’s not just speed. In federal court, all legal filings are in English. In local court, they are in Spanish. Not being able to read legal filings puts defendants at a disadvantage.

“Sometimes people don’t show up in federal court because they don’t even know they have been sued,” said Carmen Cosme, a housing counselor.

Ms. Sefcovic said Finance of America “will provide documents for borrowers in Spanish to the extent allowed by H.U.D. and the law.”

The moratorium imposed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development on the more than 117,000 mortgages it insures in Puerto Rico, such as the reverse mortgage on Mr. González-López’s home, will expire on March 18. A moratorium on mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is due to expire on Dec. 31, although it is likely to be extended for a few months.

Mr. Ramos and other housing counselors said they would like the moratorium extended for a full year, although others argue that would only postpone an inevitable wave of foreclosures.

The moratorium doesn’t appear to be airtight. Finance of America Reverse, for instance, filed three foreclosure cases after the moratorium began on Sept. 17.

Ms. Sefcovic, the company spokeswoman, said the three cases “were referred to foreclosure” before the hurricane hit and the moratorium took effect.

Others continue to battle Finance of America in court despite the moratorium.

Leila Hernández Umpierre said her parents, both in their 80s, were being sued for a second time by Finance of America. Ms. Hernández Umpierre, a lawyer, said that her parents, who bought their house in Bayamón, P.R., in 1958, had been living without electrical power since the storm hit and that the stress of the looming foreclosure was adding to their anxiety.

“My father and mother don’t have much money, as do many older people in Puerto Rico,” said Ms. Hernández Umpierre, who spoke on behalf of her parents, Minerva Umpierre Vazquez and Jorge Hernández Rodríguez. “My father doesn’t want to talk to about it. It is very stressful for him.”

Finance of America, in court papers, said the foreclosure was warranted because the couple had failed to pay for homeowner’s insurance.

But the couple’s lawyer, Jorge A. Fernández-Reboredo, said there was proof the insurance was paid. When the lender raised a similar claim in a 2015 foreclosure lawsuit, a federal judge dismissed the case, noting that Finance of America’s “complaint fails to sufficiently specify grounds on which plaintiff seeks to initiate foreclosure.”

“They are being pretty aggressive,” Mr. Fernández-Reboredo said.

Source: The New York Times

x

CHEIF 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.

x

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.

x

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”.

x

General Counsel and Executive Vice President, Human Resources

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.

x

VP, Finance and Vendor Management

Joe Iafigliola

Joe Iafigliola is the vice president of finance and vendor management for Safeguard. Joe leads the accounting and information security departments, and is a key leader in the management of SCG Partners, a middle-market private equity fund focused on diversifying and expanding Safeguard Properties’ business model into complimentary markets. He also leads the service supply chain including vendor sourcing, field quality control, and delivery, in addition to the quality assurance function for the company.

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.

x

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.

x

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.

x

AVP, Human Capital

Jennifer Anspach

Jennifer Anspach is the assistant vice president of human capital 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.

x

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.

x

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.

x

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.

x

Director, Business Development & Marketing

Tim Rath

Tim Rath is the director of business development and marketing 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.