By Kevin G. Hall
RISMEDIA, February 19, 2009-(MCT/RISMedia)-President Barack Obama rolled out a bold $75 billion, three-part plan Wednesday to halt the soaring rate of mortgage foreclosures nationwide, one that seeks to encourage refinancing of homes now worth less than their mortgages and provides incentives for lenders to lower the debt load on struggling homeowners.
The Homeowner Stability Initiative, which Obama unveiled in Phoenix, seeks to address one of the triggers of the global financial crisis: the 2.3 million U.S. foreclosures last year that are protracting the housing crisis and helping to drive down home prices across the nation.
“When the housing market collapsed, so did the availability of credit on which our economy depends. As that credit dried up, it has been harder for families to find affordable loans,” Obama said. “In the end, all of us are paying a price for this home mortgage crisis. And all of us will pay an even steeper price if we allow this crisis to deepen _ a crisis which is unraveling homeownership, the middle class, and the American Dream itself.”
Specifically, the Obama plan seeks to provide low-cost refinancing for as many as 5 million Americans. It seeks to help delinquent or at-risk borrowers get their mortgages modified so that no more than 31 percent of their income is tied up in their mortgages. And it provides financial incentives to lenders and even a new insurance program to promote more mortgage modifications.
Like the failed efforts under the Bush administration, however, the Obama plan doesn’t compel banks and other lenders to modify troubled mortgages. Instead, it provides a menu of incentives that may or may not prove sufficient.
“This is not just the treasury secretary going into the room and asking people to do the right thing,” said a senior Treasury official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak more freely. “This is the first time there has really been a systemic incentive strategy for them (lenders).”
Banks joined two prior voluntary efforts during the Bush administration _ Hope for Homeowners and the Federal Housing Administration’s FHA Secure _ but these efforts have resulted in relatively few mortgage modifications.
Now they’ll have a stick waved at them if they don’t comply with the subsidy plan. It will come in the form of Obama’s support for legislation pending in Congress that would allow bankruptcy court judges to modify the terms of a mortgage.
That’s forbidden right now, and banks and other lending institutions fiercely oppose what they call “cram down” legislation, warning that it’ll bring uncertainty for lenders, who will respond by restricting mortgage lending.
Banks may soon have to choose between the lesser of two evils. They could either modify loans – with a subsidy – to provide lower lending rates, and lose what they might have made from the higher lending rate over the life of the loan. Or they can do nothing and run the risk that a homeowner could file for bankruptcy and then have a judge order new loan terms that allow the borrower to stay in the home – and pay the lender less money.
The president’s plan also offers payments to mortgage servicers, who collect mortgage payments on behalf of investors who own the mortgages originally issued by banks but were sold into a secondary market. Servicers apparently would be offered a payment for modification on par with what they would collect in the case of foreclosure.
Help for Homeowners Q&A: Will the President’s Plan Help Your Clients?
The White House website posted a Q&A on its blog yesterday for homeowners in distress to learn how the President’s plan will help them specifically. Here are a few excerpts:
Borrowers Who Are Current on Their Mortgage Are Asking:
• What help is available for borrowers who stay current on their mortgage payments but have seen their homes decrease in value?
Under the Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan, eligible borrowers who stay current on their mortgages but have been unable to refinance to lower their interest rates because their homes have decreased in value, may now have the opportunity to refinance into a 30 or 15 year, fixed rate loan. Through the program, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will allow the refinancing of mortgage loans that they hold in their portfolios or that they placed in mortgage backed securities.
• I owe more than my property is worth, do I still qualify to refinance under the Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan?
Eligible loans will now include those where the new first mortgage (including any refinancing costs) will not exceed 105% of the current market value of the property. For example, if your property is worth $200,000 but you owe $210,000 or less you may qualify. The current value of your property will be determined after you apply to refinance.
Borrowers Who Are at Risk of Foreclosure Are Asking:
• What help is available for borrowers who are at risk of foreclosure either because they are behind on their mortgage or are struggling to make the payments?
The Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan offers help to borrowers who are already behind on their mortgage payments or who are struggling to keep their loans current. By providing mortgage lenders with financial incentives to modify existing first mortgages, the Treasury hopes to help as many as 3 to 4 million homeowners avoid foreclosure regardless of who owns or services the mortgage.
• Do I need to be behind on my mortgage payments to be eligible for a modification?
No. Borrowers who are struggling to stay current on their mortgage payments may be eligible if their income is not sufficient to continue to make their mortgage payments and they are at risk of imminent default. This may be due to several factors, such as a loss of income, a significant increase in expenses, or an interest rate that will reset to an unaffordable level.
To read the full Q&A, click here.
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