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Federal mortgage help too late for many

Housing relief plan ready to be signed by Bush

POSTED: August 2, 2008 5:00 a.m.

For 162 property owners, any mortgage relief is coming too late. Their homes or land in Hall County are in foreclosure and due to be sold at public auction in front of the courthouse Tuesday.

The mortgage relief plan that President Bush is poised to sign as soon as today is designed to rescue about 400,000 homeowners by allowing them to get more affordable mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Administration.

While the foreclosure avoidance program is scheduled to start Oct. 1, help may not arrive for months after that — and individual homeowners have no assurances they will be among those rescued.

"What happens to the people who are falling off the ledge right now? The answer is they’re going to keep falling," said James Carr, chief operating officer for the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a consumer group in Washington.

Skeptics point to the relatively small percentage of troubled homeowners who would be aided by the plan, which is part of the most significant housing legislation in decades. Nearly 2.8 million U.S. households are expected to either face foreclosure, turn over their homes to their lender or sell the properties for less than their mortgage’s value by the end of next year, according to Moody’s Economy.com.

But supporters, including U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., whose public career was in the real estate business, said it was a necessary move.

"This legislation is an infusion of confidence the financial markets need desperately," Isakson said. "We’ll put liquidity back in the mortgage market. There will be good underwriting and accountable credit issued by the mortgages that are then sold to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to provide liquidity in the marketplace. This is not a bailout for those two institutions. It is an insurance policy that’s good for this economy and good for this country."

U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Gainesville, voted against the bill in the House, but said he supports sustaining Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

"The housing bailout bill was a separate bill, and I voted against it," Deal said. "Then, they put the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae language and rolled it into the housing bailout. I would have voted for the Freddie and Fannie bill by itself, but the other part is a huge
giveaway of federal tax money that is not well thought out."

Deal said there was too much room for fraud and abuse.

While Deal is worried about abuse, others are concerned that government red-tape will snarl the process.

Frank Norton Jr., a Gainesville real estate executive who monitors economic trends, said time is of the essence."I have some concerns about the length of time it’s going to require borrowers to go through the financing process," Norton said. "I think it’s going to help give confidence and that helps a lot."

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the FHA, already is trying to fend off suggestions of inevitable delays.

The department’s secretary Steve Preston told reporters Tuesday that the government plans to have the program in place by its start date nine weeks from now, but criticized lawmakers for not including the requested funding to implement it.

To be eligible, homeowners must live in the home they are mortgaging, must have been paying at least 31 percent of their income toward their mortgage as of March 1, and must have their income verified by the bank.

But participation in the program is voluntary for lenders, and that looms as potentially a major obstacle to the program’s success. Since the banks and financial firms that handle the mortgages will have to agree to let the borrower refinance, they might end up losing less if they let borrowers go into foreclosure.

Norton said the bill shows signs of Congress and the president willing to work together.

"It’s six months too late, but it might be enough to give us a little lift after we’ve been bouncing on the bottom," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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