Federal Loan Modification program a failure

HOPE prevents 1 foreclosure

HOPE for Homeowners has been a failure. But Congress thinks some tweaks will revive it.

By Les Christie, CNNMoney.com staff writer
Last Updated: March 25, 2009: 12:25 PM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — If HOPE for Homeowners, the foreclosure-prevention plan passed last summer, was a soft drink, it would be New Coke. If it was an automobile, it would be an Edsel. A movie? Howard the Duck.

In the five months since it has been in effect, HOPE has helped exactly one homeowner to avoid foreclosure. This despite Congress having made $300 billion available to back these loans and estimating that the program would benefit as many as 400,000 families.

“As it stands now, we’ve only gotten 752 applications,” said Federal Housing Authority spokesman Brian Sullivan. “And only insured one loan. Needless to say, the program isn’t working terribly well.”

Rep. Michael Castle (R – Del.), who sits on the House Financial Services Committee, agreed, calling HOPE “one of the most failed programs we’ve had in a long time.”

Nonetheless, the House of Representatives recently approved an updated version of HOPE as part of the bankruptcy-reform bill that is a keystone to President Obama’s Homeowner Affordability and Stabilization Plan. But it was no overhaul to the program; the changes are very subtle.

Castle is concerned that the new program will also be a waste of time and money. But Sen. Chris Dodd (D – Conn.), one of the chief architects of the earlier version of HOPE, supports keeping it in the bankruptcy bill, according to a source close to the negotiations. He hopes the changes will help convince more servicers to use the program.

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill in the next few weeks.

Dashed expectations

The original program called for lenders to voluntarily refinance delinquent mortgages by reducing the principal balance on loans to 90% of a home’s current market value. The new 30-year, fixed-rate loans would then be backed by the FHA. Under the new plan, lenders would only have to write it down to 93%.

Borrowers who owed $220,000 on a house valued at $200,000, for example, would need their mortgage balances reduced to $180,000 to qualify for an original HOPE for Homeowners refi. That’s a $40,000 write-off. Under the new plan, lenders would have to forgive $34,000.

Lenders simply won’t do that very often. They prefer to use term extensions or interest rate reductions to help make mortgage payments affordable for at-risk homeowners. As a result, most of the big lenders refused to participate in the program, which was strictly voluntary though heavily encouraged by the Bush and Obama administrations.

“Writing down principal is the last thing you want to do because you have to realize the loss immediately,” said Paul Leonard, a spokesman for the Housing Policy Council, a coalition of mortgage lenders.

No volunteers

The program has also failed, Leonard added, because of the conditions and limits the program imposed. Borrowers, for example, had to agree to pay the government 50% of any future profits they made from selling the property. Under the new version of HOPE, borrowers would no longer have to split any earnings with Uncle Sam.

Other changes include incentive payments to servicers of $1,000 to induce them to participate.

The Congressional Budget Office now projects that HOPE for Homeowners could help just 25,000 mortgage borrowers over the next 10 years at a cost of $675 million.

Despite those modest numbers, Leonard said that the members of Housing Policy Council want to keep HOPE for Homeowners on the table even though the administration’s Homeowner Affordability and Stabilization Plan does much more than HOPE.

Besides reducing mortgage payments through interest rate reductions or term extensions, HASP provides for lowering mortgage principals – the only thing that HOPE offers.

Still, the tool would be in the box even if “the administration’s plan would be the first thing [lenders] look at,” Leonard said. To top of page

First Published: March 25, 2009: 11:41 AM ET

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