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D.C. mulls broadening eligibility criteria for $20 million foreclosure fund

By Cezary Podkul,

The District is considering broadening the eligibility criteria for a program that helps unemployed homeowners keep up with their mortgage payments after witnessing a lower-than-expected application volume during its first six months.

The move could make it easier for area residents to access $20 million of foreclosure prevention funds set aside for the HomeSaver Program, which the District’s Housing Finance Agency launched in January.

The local effort is funded through the federal Hardest Hit Fund, which provides foreclosure-prevention funds to 18 states and the District but has moved slowly so far. Less than half a billion of the fund’s $7.6 billion budget has been spent since the program was launched early last year, according to Treasury data.

“It’s probably a little slower than we thought,” Housing Finance Agency Executive Director Harry Sewell said in an interview. The agency has so far committed less than $1 million of its $20 million Hardest Hit funds through the HomeSaver Program, and only 35 applicants have made their way through the process. Sewell said the program potentially could help up to 1,000 homeowners.

The District hasn’t been hit as hard by foreclosures as some states participating in the Hardest Hit Fund. But the Districtwide unemployment rate, 9.8 percent as of May, remains high, raising concerns that it could lead to another uptick in foreclosures, which are down two-thirds from their level in May compared to the same time last year, according to RealtyTrac data. Wards with high unemployment, including Wards 5 and 7, have submitted the most applications to the HomeSaver Program, 109 and 103, respectively. Ward 8, which also has high unemployment, has submitted the third-most applications at 63.

If the pace of applications doesn’t pick up, Sewell said the agency may broaden the eligibility criteria for HomeSaver by the end of the summer or in the fall to include the underemployed, or people who have seen a significant drop in their income.

The program is currently limited to people who are receiving or have received unemployment insurance benefits within the last six months. Those homeowners could receive up to $32,385 in an interest-free loan to cover their mortgage payments. The interest-free loan would be forgiven after five years if the homeowner keeps the house.

Malcolm Barnes, 60, of North Michigan Park in Ward 5, was one of the first applicants for HomeSaver. “It was something I really needed to take advantage of,” he said. Barnes said his unemployment benefits were barely covering the more than $1,500 monthly mortgage bills.

Barnes received a $23,314 loan from HomeSaver, which will cover his monthly payments through April of next year so long as he continues receiving unemployment benefits.

“It’s gotten a lot of pressure off my back,” Barnes said. He hopes not to use all of the assistance he’s been allotted because he expects to find a job soon.

The only sore spot for Barnes was dealing with his bank, which he said assessed him late fees while his HomeSaver loan was being approved and didn’t credit his account in a timely manner once his loan was disbursed, leading to harassing phone calls from a collection agent.

Sewell, the District Housing Finance Agency executive director, said dealing with banks and other mortgage servicers “has really been probably the most time-consuming part of the process” for the agency.

Other federal foreclosure prevention programs have faced similar difficulties: in June the Obama administration said four large mortgage servicers — including Wells Fargo, Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase — were in need of “substantial improvement” in their services to better serve homeowners.

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