Q&A: Register of Deeds Murphy on His Successes Since Taking Office

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Stephen Murphy was elected as the Suffolk County Register of Deeds two years ago and is up for reelection this fall. Murphy fielded questions from Jamaica Plain News about the purpose of the Register of Deeds, should the register accept Venmo and more.

Suffolk County Register of Deeds Stephen Murphy

Q: You were elected in 2016 as the Suffolk County Register of Deeds. What have you accomplished in the position since being elected?

Murphy: The job of the Register of Deeds is to keep the land records for Suffolk County accessible, reliable and secure. Since taking office in December of 2016, I have made real estate records more accessible in the following two ways: first, I have improved the Registry of Deeds website and, second, I have implemented the Traveling Tuesdays program.

Campaigning in 2016, the number one complaint about the registry was how poor the existing website was. Upon taking office, my first course of action was putting a team together to redesign the website. I retained the services of the National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH in Brighton to ensure that the website would be more accessible for all Suffolk County residents. Today, the new website is now accessible to individuals who rely on assistive technology, such as screen readers and keyboard only navigation. The website allows for non-embedded text to be enlarged and contrasted to assist the visually impaired. The website is now equipped with Google Translator which allows the website’s text to be translated into over 100 different languages, assisting those users whose first language is not English. Lastly, the website was designed to fit on mobile devices, both phones and tablets.

It was also evident during the 2016 campaign that many residents did not know what the registry did or where it was located. A program called Traveling Tuesdays was established to raise the profile of the Registry of Deeds by bringing it to every corner of Suffolk County. For the last two years, weather permitting, on Tuesdays I have brought registry staff to locations across Boston, Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop. At each location, attending county residents are given a “Title” checkup, provided copies of their deed and related documents, have their questions answered and their applications for homestead protection notarized. The program has helped hundreds of residents in the last two years.

I have made your real estate records more reliable by eliminating a six-year backlog of registered land Certificates of Title. In order for the certificates to be approved, an attorney, and additional support staff needed to be hired. In 2017 and 2018, I lobbied both the House and Senate successfully for over $200,000 in additional funding to cover the costs of the additional staffing. Over the course of the last year and a half, 4,000 Certificates of Title recorded as far back as in 2012 were reviewed, approved, and issued. As of today, the backlog has been completely eliminated and the additional staffing has allowed the registry to stay up to date.

Q: On your campaign website you say your office has "partnered with other government agencies and local non-profit organizations that specialize in housing issues, predatory lending, foreclosure prevention and home ownership." What agencies and non-profit organizations, and what have been the results of those partnerships?

Murphy: Most residents of our county only come into the Registry of Deeds once, if at all, to attend their real estate closing. But for the recording of the deed at the end of the process, the sale of real estate is largely a private matter. Even in the case of foreclosure, homeowners who fall behind in their mortgage payments in Massachusetts are subject to a non-judicial unregulated, private process. As a result, programs for homebuyers and distressed homeowners are most effective when they are offered in the neighborhood where the property and individual are located.

I knew from my experience as a Boston city councilor that there was a tremendous amount of information and services available for homeowners and homebuyers. I was familiar with the work of both the Community Development Corporations (CDCs) located in Boston’s neighborhoods and the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Development. CDCs across Suffolk County provide vital services at the neighborhood level, these organizations are not simply experts in the area of affordable housing, in addition, most offer first time homebuyer programs, foreclosure prevention counseling and personal finance courses. Neighborhood Development helps residents locate housing, as well as purchase and repair their homes.

With the launch of the Suffolk Registry of Deeds new website, I sought out local organizations which provide educational programs for first time homebuyers, homeowners who are having difficulty maintaining and repairing their property, and homeowners at risk of losing their home to foreclosure. The Chelsea Development Corporation has helped hundreds of residents in both Chelsea and Revere. On our website there is a direct link to this organization’s website. Last October, we had a booth at their home fair where we provided copies of deeds to attendees and answered questions. With Mayor Marty Walsh’s encouragement, another link on our website is to the Boston Home Center’s webpage, this organization provides a variety of housing services backed by the expertise of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Development.

The Registry of Deeds website also offers links to foreclosure assistance programs and HUD-approved housing counselors located in neighborhood, community-based CDCs. With over 10,000 visits to our website each month the information regarding these programs is being received by a much larger audience. The feedback the registry has received by the users of the website has been extremely positive.

Q: The registry staff now includes individuals fluent in Spanish, Cantonese and Mandarin to help improve the accuracy of registry records. What other languages would you like to be spoken by staff members?

Murphy: Great customer service begins with great communication. The greatest benefit of hiring bilingual staff is the assistance they can provide to individuals who are researching and recording at the Registry of Deeds whose first language is not English. In hiring an additional Spanish speaking employee, the registry is virtually assured of having an employee on site every day who can assist our county’s Spanish speaking residents. In addition, the registry was very fortunate to hire an individual who fluently speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin, two very different spoken languages. In talking to staff, the next bilingual employee to be hired would ideally speak either Portuguese or French.

Q: What other initiatives would you like to implement if reelected?

Murphy: The two major issues facing the Suffolk Registry of Deeds are improving the ability to search for document on the Masslandrecords.com webpage and expanding the range of documents available to search on line. Today, more and more, our records are being accessed on line. Improving the functionality of our website and expanding the amount of information accessible on line are of critical importance to all of our users.

Suffolkdeeds.com is the registry’s website, the one which I have total control of as the register. When I was elected two years ago, improving the existing sight was a top priority. The improvements on that website in the last year have been praised by users across our county and the state. Masslandrecords.com hosts our document search capabilities and is far less user friendly than the Suffolkdeeds.com website.

Masslandrecords.com hosts several other state-based registries under the supervision of the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth. Therefore, making changes and improvements is more difficult because of the size and scope of the project. We are all collectively moving forward and in 2019 we hope to complete the project. The improvements will include: a stronger platform to hold more content and function better on mobile devices, a redesigned more user-friendly webpage, the bandwidth will be increased to make the website faster and the Google Chrome/Internet Explorer pop-up blocker problem will be addressed.

As we move toward making the information of the Registry of Deeds more accessible, we must also move to expand the amount of information that is available on line. The Suffolk Registry of Deeds currently has indexed and imaged on our data base recorded land records dating back to 1973. This means that an individual can perform a computer-based search either online or in-house of 45 years worth of registry records. The industry standard for a satisfactory title examination is 50 years. In order to achieve this goal, the years 1970, 1971 and 1972 need to be indexed electronically and the scanned images of the documents must be linked to the indexing. When this project is completed in 2019, the registry’s 50-year online search will greatly benefit all of our constituents.

Q: Do you think recording fees will stay the same cost or go up? Or could they actually go down?

Murphy: The monies collected at the Registry of Deeds are a major source of revenue for the Commonwealth – in 2017 the Suffolk Registry of Deeds recorded 132,000 documents and collected $76.5 million dollars. The major share of the revenue was the Deeds Excise Tax collected pursuant to MGL c. 64D which totaled $64.5 million dollars. The total revenue collected in Suffolk County pursuant to the Community Preservation Act surcharge was $2.3 million dollars. The Massachusetts Senate recently proposed unsuccessfully to increase the surcharges placed on all real estate transactions at the state’s Registries of Deeds, the additional funding would have gone to the Community Preservation Act’s Trust Fund. The Senate’s proposal would basically have increased the fee for most documents recorded from $20 to $50, which would have increased total revenues collected by the surcharge to a figure around $5.7 million dollars in Suffolk County.

I think we can all agree that there is a clear need for more affordable housing in Suffolk County. In addition, we can probably all agree that the current figure collected ($2.3 million) and the proposed figure ($5.8 million) do not provide the funds necessary to meet the need. I would suggest that the Senate and the advocates for the Community Preservation Act consider an increase to the Deeds Excise Tax to fund the construction of affordable housing. Currently, registries in Massachusetts collect $4.56 for every $1,000 of consideration stated on a deed. On a home costing $500,000 the excise tax collected is $2,280.

What is interesting is that the tax collected in Massachusetts is far lower than the rate collected in surrounding states. New Hampshire charges $7.50 per $1,000. Connecticut charges $12.50 per $1,000, as does Vermont. New York charges $4 per $1,000 up to $1 million in consideration and then $14 per $1,000 + a mortgage tax + a NYC tax. If the Massachusetts figure was increased by $1 to $5.56 per $1,000 – an additional 18% in deeds excise revenue would amount to approximately $11.6 million dollars in Suffolk. I think that this figure, if dedicated to affordable housing would help our county and our community better meet the growing demonstrated need.

Q: The registry doesn't take credit or debit cards. That seems like not accepting those payments would negatively affect people and seems out of date with modern forms of payments. Would you like that to be changed? How about other forms of payment like PayPal or Venmo?

Murphy: The Registries of Deeds and the Secretary of the Commonwealth would prefer to accept credit cards and other modern forms of payment, however, the current statutory scheme (see – MGL c. 262 (fees), MGL c. 64 D (Deeds Excise Tax), MGL c. 29 (General Fund)) does not permit it. There are 21 Registries of Deeds in the 14 counties of Massachusetts (some counties have more than one registry). The only forms of payment permitted at each registry is cash or check. The Suffolk Registry of Deeds, like the others, is obligated by law to collect all statutory fees and taxes and deposit those funds in the Commonwealth’s General Fund. The register must collect and deposit the full amount required by statute and has no authority to alter the amount or provide less than the full statutory fee or tax. As a result, the Registry of Deeds cannot accept credit card payments because after the credit card vendor collects its transactional fee the full amount required by statute is not deposited.

Q: What else would you like people to know about yourself, your campaign and the Suffolk County Register of Deeds?

Murphy: In 1639, the General Court ordered that the transfer of all houses and lands be recorded in books and maintained by a register. A year later, the first land recording statute in world history was enacted protecting homebuyers who relied on the land records which appeared in those books. The law, which is still in effect today (M.G.L. c. 183, §4), makes an unrecorded deed invalid against a good faith purchaser. Pursuant to M.G.L. c. 36, the Suffolk Registry of Deeds is the official filing office and record keeper of legal documents affecting land situated in the city of Boston, city of Chelsea, city of Revere, and town of Winthrop. The Register of Deeds is bonded annually to faithfully perform over 20 statutory duties to ensure real estate records remain accessible, reliable and secure, as well as to collect and account for all fees and taxes. The registry plays a critical role in supporting our local economy and protecting the real estate investments of Suffolk County residents.

During the campaign, some have said that the Register of Deeds is a figure head position and that the focus of the register should be on creating more affordable housing and that the registry should function more like a CDC and provide programing for first time homebuyers and distressed homeowners. People holding those opinions simply do not understand the importance of the registry and the role of the register. The Registry of Deeds and the position of register were created by statute almost 400 years ago because accessible, reliable, and secure land records are the core building block upon which our government and our economy are built. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the essence of the American experience, begins with food, water, and shelter. Our homes are our shelter – the job of the register is to help protect your home.

The Register of Deeds has very limited statutory authority and a budget of $2 million dollars, over 90% of which is payroll. The register does not have the statutory authority or the budget to expand affordable housing in Suffolk County – that authority lies with the federal, state and local governments. The local CDCs are doing an excellent job delivering important services and programs at the neighborhood level. Using tax dollars and limited grant money to duplicate the services CDCs provide without the training, experience, and expertise the CDCs possess is not in the best interest of the residents of our county.

My job as the Register of Deeds is to make the registry the best it can be and provide the residents of our county with accessible, reliable, and secure real estate records. Both my opponent and I agree that the Suffolk Registry of Deeds has great staff and performs well, where we disagree is on the mission of the office. The job of register, in and of itself, is an important one – and to do it well requires the full attention of the register dedicated to the mission which is clearly defined in M.G.L. c. 36 to ensure accessible, reliable, and secure real estate records.