|Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner listened to a homeowner yesterday as the White House unveiled aid. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)|
US expands assistance plan for homeowners
Initial program off to slow start
With less than 24 hours on the clock, Rose Inman's foreclosure was postponed late yesterday for 30 days. But after spending hundreds of dollars she couldn't afford to find an apartment and pack her things, the last-minute gesture comes too late - she is moving out of her house overlooking Seattle's Puget Sound.
For the past two months she had hoped to benefit from President Obama's plan to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. Despite numerous calls, e-mails, and letters to Aurora Loan Services, she was only able to have one phone conversation with a company representative.
"It's like this huge, concrete thick wall that you cannot get through," said Inman, 58, who is working as a human resources consultant, but making much less than she was before she was laid off by the City of Seattle.
Yesterday, the Obama administration said its bold mortgage assistance program launched in March is helping thousands of borrowers, though some lenders are working faster than others. So far, participating mortgage companies have made more than 55,000 offers to modify borrowers' loans, but officials could not say how many of those homeowners had been helped.
And knowing that many troubled homeowners can't be helped, the Obama administration expanded its $50 billion mortgage aid program, announcing new measures that would help homeowners avoid a foreclosure if they don't qualify for other assistance.
The initiatives are intended to streamline the process of selling a home that is worth less than the mortgage, or transferring ownership of a home to the lender. Both options will still adversely affect the homeowner's credit score, but less than a foreclosure.
So far, 14 companies - including Aurora Loan Services, Wells Fargo, and JPMorgan Chase - have signed up and will be paid for each loan they modify. And to further entice mortgage companies to participate, the government is offering payments totaling up to $10 billion to compensate them for the risk of falling home prices.
"The basic problem is that the program is very complicated and involved to set up," said Guy Cecala, publisher of trade publication Inside Mortgage Finance. He doesn't expect to see large volumes of loan modifications before July or August.
While some mortgage companies have added staff and made preparations for the program, others are apparently lagging behind. Many housing counselors across the country complain that the program has been slow getting off the ground.
"Our experience at the ground level has been, so far, frustrating," said Michael van Zalingen, director of homeownership at Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, a counseling group. Entry-level employees at mortgage companies, he said, are either steering borrowers away from the plan or are entirely unaware of it.
Housing counselors say many borrowers, like Inman, who should qualify, are still losing their homes.
Government officials estimate that up to 4 million borrowers will get their loans modified under the Obama plan, but housing specialists like Mark Zandi of Moody's Economy.com expect the number will be less than half of that.
The initiatives announced yesterday are aimed at ineligible homeowners: borrowers who are unemployed or owe significantly more than their homes are worth.
Generally, there are two options for them to avoid foreclosure. The homeowner can sign the property title over to the lender in what is known as a deed in lieu of foreclosure. Or, with the lender's permission, the homeowner can sell the property for less than the value of the loan a so-called short sale.