$50b Foreclosure Plan Falling Short

Crisis gets ahead of the Obama administration

By Victoria McGrane
|  Friday, Oct 9, 2009  |  Updated 4:45 AM EDT
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Housing counselor Leslie Herrera-Torrey sits behind a huge number of mortgage case files in Commerce City, Colorado.

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The Obama administration’s $50 billion plan to curb foreclosures isn’t big or fast enough to keep up with the growing problem, a congressional watchdog concludes in a report being released Friday.

“It increasingly appears that [the foreclosure program] is targeted at the housing crisis as it existed six months ago, rather than as it exists right now,” the report warns.

Six months ago was when the administration unveiled its foreclosure prevention program, known as the Making Home Affordable program. But the foreclosure problem has morphed since then, extending well beyond the subprime mortgages the administration’s program targets and into the prime market, according to the report released by the Congressional Oversight Panel, which was created to oversee the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program.

And as the administration’s program ramps up, foreclosures are accelerating. The Center for Responsible Lending, a non-profit, non-partisan policy shop, estimates that as many as 13 million homes could enter foreclosure over the next five years.

One out of every eight mortgages is currently in default or foreclosure, according to the oversight panel’s report.

The next wave of foreclosures is likely to be driven by resetting interest rates on so-called “payment option” adjustable rate mortgages and interest-only mortgages, many of which don’t qualify for the adminstration’s program, the report said.

There’s also no relief provided for homeowners who become unemployed, which is quickly becoming the leading cause of foreclosures, the watchdog said.

The program is unlikely to achieve its target of preventing 3 million to 4 million foreclosures – a fact acknowledged by Treasury itself, according to the report.

“Once the program is fully operational, Treasury officials have stated that the goal is to modify 25,000 to 30,000 loans per week. Treasury‘s own projections would mean that, in the best case, fewer than half of the predicted foreclosures would be avoided,” the report said.

Finally, the watchdog raised concerns that few of the trial modifications taking place would actually turn out to be permanent solutions. Homeowners would see their rates rise after five years under many of the trial modification made so far; moreover, many of the modifications put homeowners deeper “underwater” – owing more than their house is worth – than before, increasing the chances they’ll re-default, the report said.

The dismal report is sure to increase the unhappiness congressional Democrats already feel towards the administration’s foreclosure program. For months, top lawmakers have sounded a steady drumbeat of concern about its paltry progress, with several lawmakers saying they’re readying legislation should the Treasury program, and the banks on which it relies to modify mortgages, fail to deliver.

Last month, Rep. Barney Frank, the powerful chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, threatened banks that he would attach the so-called “cramdown” measure — which would let bankruptcy judges modify the terms of mortgages — to the massive financial reform legislation the House is expected to pass this fall. He also is working on legislation to steer $2 billion of remaining TARP funds to help unemployed homeowners stave off foreclosure.

The outcry over the lack of results prompted the Treasury department to tell participating mortgage servicers to shape up in a letter, followed by a meeting, in late July. The administration also set a benchmark for the program to reach 500,000 trial loan modifications by November 1 to spur lenders to pick up the pace with their loan modifications.

The Treasury quietly announced Thursday that its foreclosure program hit that mark – almost a month early. But the announcement has so far been met with silence on the Hill.

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