HUD program to help struggling homeowners falling short

September 21, 2011

A federal program to provide temporary loans to homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages will probably fall short of its goal, the latest in a series of efforts that has left funds allocated by Congress unspent and has failed to help as many troubled borrowers as officials initially hoped.

“We recognize that we probably will not reach the 30,000 families we originally aspired to assist when the program was launched,” said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has the job of administering the $1 billion Emergency Homeowners’ Loan Program, or EHLP.

The program was created under the financial regulatory legislation passed by Congress last year. It targets troubled homeowners who have fallen behind on their mortgages because of job loss or unexpected medical bills. The loans are intended to help borrowers stay current on their mortgages and help cover payments for up to two years or a maximum of $50,000, whichever comes first. The loans are forgiven over five years if the recipients remain in their homes and stay current on their payments.

The program was supposed to begin last year, but implementation delays prevented it from getting off the ground until June. That left little time for homeowners to apply to the program and for officials to sift through the mountain of applications. By law, HUD must commit funds by Sept. 30, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year. Any unspent funds must be returned to the Treasury Department.

Sullivan said the agency expects to have reviewed about 100,000 applications by that time. But given the strict criteria for the program, many of those hoping for assistance probably won’t qualify.

For example, applicants must show that their income has fallen by at least 15 percent and that the decline is attributable to the recent economic downturn. They also must be able to show that once the federal loan is gone, they can resume loan payments. That means underwriters have to turn down many people who need help but don’t meet the statutory requirements, such as senior citizens on fixed incomes.

Still, Sullivan said officials are determined to sift through the applications in search of as many eligible homeowners as possible.

“HUD and our counseling agencies are working extremely hard to meet this statutory deadline to qualify borrowers to the program,” he said.

Under the program, HUD has distributed money to 32 states and to Puerto Rico based on their unemployment rates. It allotted $39 million to Maryland and almost $47 million to Virginia. The District, through a separate federal program, received almost $8 million to help jobless homeowners facing foreclosure.

The effort is part of a broader push to help stem the fallout from the housing crisis, which has left many borrowers owing far more than their homes are worth and often struggling to keep up with payments.

The Obama administration has tried numerous approaches to stem foreclosures and revive the housing market. The largest of those efforts is the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, which uses funds from the federal bailout fund to pay lenders that modify mortgages and create more affordable payments for homeowners. The program has given more than 600,000 homeowners a permanent loan modification, although the Obama administration initially expected to help up to 4 million homeowners.

Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on food and drug issues.
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