Obama touts mortgage aid program, urges Congress to expand it


President Obama, accompanied by Val and Paul Keller, talks about home mortgages on Friday outside the Kellers’ home in Reno, Nev. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

President Obama rolled into a modest hilltop neighborhood here Friday to champion his administration’s efforts to help underwater homeowners get back on their feet — and to urge Congress to do more.

Standing outside the house of Val and Paul Keller, who have watched the value of their home plummet well below the amount they owe on their mortgage, Obama announced a dramatic spike in the number of Americans who are taking advantage of federal programs that let them refinance their loans.

The programs, Obama said, allow homeowners to reduce their monthly payments because of historically low interest rates. That can stabilize the housing market by reducing the risk of foreclosure.

“That means more money in the economy, and businesses do better, and slowly home prices start rising again,” Obama said as he stood with the Kellers on their driveway, the high-desert hills of Reno behind him. “And so it makes sense for all of us.”

The Kellers took advantage of a program Obama announced last fall designed to remove barriers to refinancing for homeowners underwater on their mortgages. Obama was able to launch the program administratively because it applies only to federally backed mortgages. Now, he is calling on Congress — “nag ’em,” he told the crowd — to enact legislation that would extend the program to all such homeowners.

“There’s absolutely no reason why they can’t make this happen right now,” Obama said. “If they started now, in a couple of weeks, in a month, they could make every homeowner in America who is underwater right now eligible to be able to refinance their homes if they’re making their payments, if they’re responsible.”

Obama’s visit to Reno was part of a national tour in which he has promoted a five-point congressional “to-do” list.

Aside from the mortgage relief measures, Obama is pressing Republicans to support his proposals for a 20 percent tax cut for businesses that bring manufacturing jobs back from overseas and a 10 percent tax credit for companies that hire workers and increase wages.

The president also is calling for a Veterans Jobs Corps to help service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan get jobs as police officers and firefighters. The fifth item on the “to-do” list involves credits for energy production and clean-energy manufacturing.

Obama chose Reno for his mortgage-relief pitch in part because it is in a region where home prices have fallen more than 50 percent from the market’s peak. In Nevada overall, more than 60 percent of homeowners owe more on their mortgages than the value of their houses.

Nevada is also a potentially critical swing state in the presidential election. Obama won it in 2008, but it has the nation’s highest unemployment and second-highest foreclosure rates. Its importance was apparent as Obama lingered after his event to shake hands and chat with as many of the onlookers as he could reach.

Obama also visited privately with the Kellers, who owed $168,000 on a house worth $100,000 after the collapse of the housing market. Because of that, they did not qualify for refinancing. But Val Keller heard Obama promoting his new mortgage program last fall in Las Vegas, and she called her lender and learned that she qualified. Since refinancing, the Kellers pay $240 less a month — and are plowing that money back into their home to build up their equity.

Emerging from the home and standing with the Kellers in front of their two-car garage, Obama touted a spike in the number of homeowners like the Kellers who are taking advantage of the new regulations. He said refinance applications have increased more than 50 percent across the nation.

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