Home Foreclosure Sales: FHA, Rural Housing Service, and VA Could Better Align Program Metrics with Their Missions

What GAO Found

By 2019, the number of foreclosed properties—known as real estate-owned (REO) properties—that federal entities owned declined to historically low levels because of the housing market recovery and the sale of many of the properties (see figure).

Real Estate-Owned Properties of Selected Federal Entities, 2004–2019

Note: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are the government-sponsored enterprises shown here. Data for the enterprises and FHA are calendar year; for VA and RHS, fiscal year ending September 30.

The entities GAO reviewed each have processes to oversee their REO maintenance contractors’ activities and performance, including internal and external performance reviews and on-site inspections. Entities generally have standardized maintenance policies for REO properties across the country, such as emergency repairs for broken windows and routine maintenance requirements for the frequency of cutting grass. GAO found that the performance of contractors whose documentation GAO reviewed generally met entities’ standards and requirements. However, entities’ oversight of contractors identified instances of underperformance in maintenance. For instance, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) recouped almost $3 million from seven property maintenance contractors for work below quality standards from 2017 to 2020.

The REO program metrics of FHA, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the Rural Housing Service (RHS) focus on required financial goals, such as minimizing losses, but do not always align fully with other program goals or agency missions. For example, FHA does not collect comprehensive information on REO property sales to public-sector homeowners or local nonprofits—missing an opportunity to measure the extent to which its REO program supports its goal to strengthen neighborhoods and communities. Similarly, VA and RHS lack metrics that would show whether their REO programs align with their broader agency missions to serve veterans and rural homebuyers, respectively. Incorporating additional metrics could help FHA, VA, and RHS ensure that their REO programs assist in meeting their agencies’ missions.

Why GAO Did This Study

Poor maintenance of foreclosed properties can negatively affect communities and threaten neighborhood stability. FHA, VA, RHS, and Freddie Mac are among the federal entities owning foreclosed properties through REO programs.

GAO was asked to review how these federal entities monitor REO property conditions. The objectives this report examines include trends in the number of REO properties; oversight of maintenance contractors; and whether metrics used to assess REO program performance align with entities’ missions.

GAO reviewed and analyzed reports and data on the number of REO properties and documentation on FHA, Freddie Mac, VA, and RHS oversight of REO property maintenance from 2017 to 2020. GAO also analyzed data on REO reimbursements to contractors for maintenance activities.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that FHA, VA, and RHS consider additional REO program metrics that measure how the programs support their respective missions of strengthening communities and serving veterans and rural homeowners. The entities generally agreed with the recommendation.

For more information, contact John H. Pendleton at (202) 512-8678 or pendletonj@gao.gov.

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    In U.S GAO News
    Although more than one-third of adults aged 50 or older have experienced divorce, few people seek and obtain a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO), according to large plan sponsors GAO surveyed. A QDRO establishes the right of an alternate payee, such as a former spouse, to receive all or a portion of the benefits payable to a participant under a retirement plan upon separation or divorce. There are no nationally representative data on the number of QDROs, but plans and record keepers GAO interviewed and surveyed reported that few seek and obtain QDROs. For example, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation administered retirement benefits to about 1.6 million participants, and approved about 16,000 QDROs in the last 10 years. GAO's analysis of other survey data found about one-third of those who experienced a divorce from 2008 to 2016 and reported their former spouse had a retirement plan also reported losing a claim to that spouse's benefits. Many experts stated that some people—especially those with lower incomes—face challenges to successfully navigating the process for obtaining a QDRO, including complexity and cost. Individuals seeking a QDRO may be charged fees for preparation and review of draft orders before they are qualified as QDROs and, according to experts GAO interviewed, these fees vary widely. These experts cited concerns about QDRO review fees that they said in some cases were more than twice the amount of typical fees, and said they may discourage some from pursuing QDROs. Department of Labor (DOL) officials said the agency generally does not collect information on QDRO fees. Exploring ways to collect and analyze information from plans on fees could help DOL ensure costs are reasonable. Divorcing parties who pursue QDROs often had orders not qualified due to lacking basic information, according to plans and record keepers we surveyed (see figure). Plan Administrators and Record Keepers Reported Reasons for Not Qualifying a Domestic Relations Order (DRO) DOL provides some information to help divorcing parties pursue QDROs. However, many experts cited a lack of awareness about QDROs by the public and said DOL could do more to make resources available to divorcing parties. Without additional outreach by DOL, divorcing parties may spend unnecessary time and resources drafting orders that are not likely to be qualified, resulting in unnecessary expenditures of time and money. A domestic relations order (DRO) is a court-issued judgment, decree, or order that, when qualified by a retirement plan administrator, can divide certain retirement benefits in connection with separation or divorce and as such provide crucial financial security to a former spouse. DOL has authority to interpret QDRO requirements. GAO was asked to review the process for obtaining QDROs. This report examines what is known about (1) the number of QDRO recipients, (2) the fees and other expenses for processing QDROs, and (3) the reasons plans do not initially qualify DROs and the challenges experts identify regarding the QDRO process. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed available data, and a total of 14 responses from two surveys of large private sector plans and account record keepers, and interviewed 18 experts including practitioners who provide services to divorcing couples. GAO is recommending that DOL (1) explore ways to collect information on QDRO-related fees charged to participants or alternate payees, and (2) take steps to ensure information about the process for obtaining a QDRO is accessible. DOL generally agreed with our recommendations. For more information, contact Kris Nguyen at (202) 512-7215 or NguyenTT@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    Following a decade of decline, including after the 2007–2009 financial crisis, the national homeownership rate started to recover in 2016 (see figure). Homeownership Rate in the United States, 1990–2018 Note: Shaded areas indicate U.S. recessions. However, not all Americans have benefitted from the recovery, even in housing markets that appear to be thriving. GAO examined homeownership trends during 2010–2018 in nine core-based statistical areas (cities)—Chicago; Cleveland; Columbia, South Carolina; Denver; Houston; Pittsburgh; San Francisco; Seattle; and Washington, D.C. In summary, among the nine cities reviewed, GAO found that during 2010–2018: The homeownership rate declined or was flat in all cities. The homeownership rate significantly declined in Chicago, Cleveland, and Houston and remained statistically unchanged in the other cities. Average home prices grew in all cities, but at considerably different rates. For example, real house prices increased significantly in Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle but much less in Chicago, Cleveland, and Columbia. The homeowner vacancy rate dropped in all cities, indicating growing constraints on the housing supply. Most significantly, by 2018, the three cities with the largest house price increases—Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle—all had homeowner vacancy rates below 1 percent and the three lowest rental vacancy rates (below 5 percent), indicating more severe constraints on supply. Most cities became denser, and some also expanded outward. Cities such as Houston and Washington, D.C., both became denser (added more housing units in developed areas) and expanded outward (added housing units in previously undeveloped areas), while cities such as Seattle and Denver grew largely by adding more density to already high-density areas. Chicago, and Pittsburgh became less dense, as limited growth came largely through outward expansion. Homeowners and recent borrowers were increasingly higher-income. All nine cities saw growth in the estimated number and percentage of households reporting annual incomes of $150,000 or more (the highest income category reported by Census). Similarly, with the exception of Columbia, real median incomes of borrowers increased in the selected cities. Homeowners and recent borrowers were increasingly older and more diverse. Most cities saw growth in homeownership among households aged 60 and older, often with corresponding decreases among younger owners. Additionally, loan originations by minority borrowers increased in all cities. GAO's analysis of homeownership trends in these nine cities during 2010–2018 illustrates two main points: (1) Cities grew differently and accommodated growth to differing degrees, and (2) who owns and who can buy a home differs by location and type of buyer, sometimes substantially. Historically, owning a home has been one of the primary ways Americans built wealth and financial security. This is one reason why the availability and price of housing is consequential to both households and policymakers. GAO was asked to assess the state of the current domestic housing market and this report, one in a series, focuses on homeownership trends. To conduct this work, GAO used data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey and Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data (loan and application data filed by mortgage lenders), among other sources, to identify trends in nine selected cities during 2010–2018, the most current data available at the time of GAO's review. This report examines trends prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and does not account for the profound effect it likely will have on homeowners. GAO has ongoing work that will examine implementation of foreclosure and eviction protections authorized in recent legislation. GAO makes no recommendations in this report. For more information, contact Daniel Garcia-Diaz at (202) 512-8678 or garciadiazd@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    In fiscal year 2019, debt held by the public reached 79 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The government's fiscal response to COVID-19 combined with the severe economic contraction from the pandemic will substantially increase federal debt. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that debt held by the public will reach 98 percent of GDP by the end of fiscal year 2020. The nation's fiscal challenges will require attention once the economy has substantially recovered and public health goals have been attained. GAO has previously reported that a long-term plan is needed to put the government on a sustainable fiscal path. Other countries have used well-designed fiscal rules and targets—which constrain fiscal policy by controlling factors like expenditures or revenue—to contain excessive deficits. For example, Germany's constitution places limits on its deficits. The U.S. federal government has previously enacted fiscal rules, such as those in the Budget Control Act of 2011. However, current fiscal rules have not effectively addressed the misalignment between spending and revenues over time. GAO identified key considerations to help Congress if it were to adopt new fiscal rules and targets, as part of a long-term plan for fiscal sustainability (see table). Key Considerations for Designing, Implementing, and Enforcing Fiscal Rules and Targets Setting clear goals and objectives can anchor a country's fiscal policy. Fiscal rules and targets can help ensure that spending and revenue decisions align with agreed-upon goals and objectives. The weight given to tradeoffs among simplicity, flexibility, and enforceability depends on the goals a country is trying to achieve with a fiscal rule. In addition, there are tradeoffs between the types and combinations of rules, and the time frames over which the rules apply. The degree to which fiscal rules and targets are binding, such as being supported through a country's constitution or nonbinding political agreements, can impact their permanence, as well as the extent to which ongoing political commitment is needed to uphold them. Integrating fiscal rules and targets into budget discussions can contribute to their ongoing use and provide for a built-in enforcement mechanism. The budget process can include reviews of fiscal rules and targets. Fiscal rules and targets with limited, well-defined exemptions, clear escape clauses for events such as national emergencies, and adjustments for the economic cycle can help a country address future crises. Institutions supporting fiscal rules and targets need clear roles and responsibilities for supporting their implementation and measuring their effectiveness. Independently analyzed data and assessments can help institutions monitor compliance with fiscal rules and targets. Having clear, transparent fiscal rules and targets that a government communicates to the public and that the public understands can contribute to a culture of fiscal transparency and promote fiscal sustainability for the country. Source: GAO analysis of literature review and interviews. | GAO-20-561 Our nation faces serious challenges at a time when the federal government is highly leveraged in debt by historical norms. The imbalance between revenue and spending built into current law and policy have placed the nation on an unsustainable long-term fiscal path. Fiscal rules and targets can be used to help frame and control the overall results of spending and revenue decisions that affect the debt. GAO was asked to review fiscal rules and targets. This report (1) assesses the extent to which the federal government has taken action to contribute to long-term fiscal sustainability through fiscal rules and targets, and (2) identifies key considerations for designing, implementing, and enforcing fiscal rules and targets in the U.S. GAO compared current and former U.S. fiscal rules to literature on the effective use of rules and targets; reviewed CBO reports and relevant laws; and interviewed experts. GAO conducted case studies of national fiscal rules in Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands. Congress should consider establishing a long-term fiscal plan that includes fiscal rules and targets, such as a debt-to-GDP target, and weigh GAO's key considerations to ensure proper design, implementation, and enforcement of these rules and targets. The Department of the Treasury and other entities provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Jeff Arkin, at (202) 512-6806 or arkinj@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) data, the number of substance use disorder (SUD) treatment facilities and services increased since 2009. However, potential gaps in treatment capacity remain. For example, SAMHSA data show that, as of May 2020, most counties did not have all levels of SUD treatment available, including outpatient, residential, and hospital inpatient services; nearly one-third of counties had no levels of treatment available. Stakeholders GAO interviewed said it is important to have access to each level for treating individuals with varying SUD severity. Availability of Substance Use Disorder Treatment Levels, by County, as of May 2020 SAMHSA primarily relies on the number of individuals served to assess the effect of three of its largest grant programs on access to SUD treatment and recovery support services. However, GAO found the agency lacks two elements of reliable data—that they be consistent and relevant—for the number of individuals served under the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant (SABG) program. For example, grantee reporting includes individuals served outside of the program, which limits this measure's relevance for program assessment of access. SAMHSA plans to implement data quality improvements for the SABG program starting in fiscal year 2021. However, the agency has not identified specific changes needed to improve the information it collects on individuals served. As SAMHSA moves forward with its plans, it will be important for it to identify and implement such changes. Doing so will allow SAMHSA to better assess whether the SABG program is achieving a key goal of improving access to SUD treatment and recovery services or whether changes may be needed. Treatment for SUD—the recurrent use of substances, such as illicit drugs, causing significant impairment—can help individuals reduce or stop substance use and improve their quality of life. SUDs, and in particular drug misuse, have been a persistent and long-standing public health issue in the United States. Senate Report 115-289 contains a provision for GAO to review SUD treatment capacity. This report, among other things, describes what is known about SUD treatment facilities, services, and overall capacity; and examines the information SAMHSA uses to assess the effect of three grant programs on access to SUD treatment. GAO analyzed national SAMHSA data on SUD treatment facilities and providers, and reviewed studies that assessed treatment capacity. GAO also reviewed documentation for three of SAMHSA's largest grant programs available to states, and compared the agency's grant data quality to federal internal control standards. Finally, GAO interviewed SAMHSA officials and stakeholders, including provider groups. GAO is recommending that SAMHSA identify and implement changes to the SABG program's data collection efforts to improve two elements of reliability—the consistency and relevance—of data collected on individuals served. SAMHSA concurred with this recommendation. For more information, contact Alyssa M. Hundrup at (202) 512-7114 or HundrupA@gao.gov.
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    As of October 2020, the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) had jointly developed 22 clinical practice guidelines (VA/DOD CPG) that address specific health conditions, including those related to chronic diseases, mental health issues, pain management, and rehabilitation. Such guidelines are important as military and veteran populations may have different health care needs than civilians due to involvement in combat or occupational exposures (e.g., fumes from burn pits) that may amplify physical and psychological stresses. GAO found that DOD and VA considered the health care needs of these populations throughout the guideline development process and that the guidelines include information about these health care needs in different sections. In some cases, the guidelines include treatment recommendations that specifically address the health care needs of the military and veteran populations. In other instances, they may include information about the prevalence of a specific condition for these populations, among other information. Each of the military services (Army, Air Force, and Navy) has its own process for distributing VA/DOD CPGs to providers at their military treatment facilities (MTF). However, DOD's Defense Health Agency (DHA) is in the process of assuming administrative operations—to include distributing guidelines—for all of the military services' MTFs through an incremental transition process that is to be completed by the end of September 2021. While DHA officials acknowledged that they need to develop a uniform distribution process for the guidelines once they complete the transition, MTF providers can currently access the guidelines through VA's designated website and DOD's electronic health record systems. Congress directed DOD to implement VA/DOD CPGs, using means such as providing education and training, and to monitor MTFs' implementation of them. However, GAO found that DHA and the military services are not systematically monitoring MTFs' implementation of these guidelines. While the Army tracks VA/DOD CPG education and training at its MTFs, officials with DHA, the Navy, and the Air Force explained that they have not been monitoring MTF implementation of these guidelines. DHA officials acknowledged that they need to develop a monitoring process as they assume administrative and oversight responsibilities for the military services' MTFs, but have not yet developed a plan to do so. Without a systematic process to monitor MTF implementation of these guidelines, DHA does not know the extent to which MTF providers may be using VA/DOD CPGs to reduce the variability and improve the quality of health care services provided—factors that may contribute to better health outcomes across the military health system. Through DOD's TRICARE program, eligible beneficiaries may receive care from providers at MTFs or from civilian providers. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 required DOD to establish a program to develop, implement, update, and monitor clinical practice guidelines, which are evidence-based treatment recommendations to improve the consistency and quality of care delivered by MTF providers. The Act also included a provision for GAO to assess issues related to the military health system, including the process of ensuring that providers adhere to clinical practice guidelines, and to report annually for 4 years. This is GAO's fourth report based on the Act. This report describes (1) how the process for developing the guidelines considers the health care needs of the military and veteran populations, (2) how they are distributed by the military services to their providers and how providers access them, and (3) the extent to which DHA and the military services monitor MTF implementation of them, among other things. GAO reviewed relevant policies and guidance; analyzed each of the 22 CPGs; and interviewed officials with DOD, the military services, and VA. GAO recommends that DHA work with the military services to develop and implement a systematic process to monitor MTFs' implementation of VA/DOD CPGs. DOD concurred with this recommendation. For more information, contact Debra A. Draper at (202) 512-7114 or draperd@gao.gov.
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