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HUD Chief Calls Aid on Mortgages A Failure

HUD Secretary Steve Preston says "Congress dotted the i's and crossed the t's for us, and unfortunately it has made this program tough to use."
HUD Secretary Steve Preston says "Congress dotted the i's and crossed the t's for us, and unfortunately it has made this program tough to use." (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)

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By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Steve Preston said the centerpiece of the federal government's effort to help struggling homeowners has been a failure and he's blaming Congress.

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The three-year program was supposed to help 400,000 borrowers avoid foreclosure. But it has attracted only 312 applications since its October launch because it is too expensive and onerous for lenders and borrowers alike, Preston said in an interview.

"What most people don't understand is that this program was designed to the detail by Congress," Preston said. "Congress dotted the i's and crossed the t's for us, and unfortunately it has made this program tough to use."

The criticism comes as Congress prepares to weigh in with further plans to help distressed borrowers facing foreclosures, which are at the root of the financial meltdown. This week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) demanded that the Treasury Department use some of the money from the $700 billion emergency rescue package to help at-risk homeowners.

One of several federal and state foreclosure prevention initiatives facing difficulties, HUD's Hope for Homeowners program has been especially hamstrung. For instance, a program launched by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. on behalf of IndyMac Bank customers has modified more than 3,500 mortgages in two months of operation.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who helped steer the HUD program through Congress, said some of the federal bailout money should be used to revamp it. Frank acknowledged the initiative has its problems, but he blamed them on the Bush administration.

"That's partly their fault," said Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. "The administration was critical of the program and kept putting pressure on us to make it cheaper and more restrictive. . . . If it hadn't been for the Bush administration's opposition, we would have written it in a better way in the first place."

The goal of the program, run by the Federal Housing Administration, was to allow borrowers who owe more than their homes are worth to refinance into more affordable 30-year fixed-rate mortgages insured by the government.

But part of the problem is that the program's success hinges on the lenders' willingness to participate.

Congress originally allowed the FHA to insure new loans for only 90 percent of a home's value. With home prices plunging, borrowers who have little or no equity in their homes and cannot otherwise come up with the remaining 10 percent qualify only if the lender forgives this balance. Lenders balked.

Late last month, Congress granted HUD permission to increase the amount that's insured and the department decided to guarantee up to 96.5 percent of the value of new loans. Preston in the interview praised that change. But its impact remains unclear.

"Getting the lenders to agree . . . has been our biggest challenge," said Peyton Herbert, director of foreclosure services at HomeFree USA, a housing counseling firm in Hyattsville. "They want dollar for dollar what's owed on that loan or something close to it. That's the fly in the ointment."

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