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Homeowner Rescue Bill Passes House

Measure Would Let Bankruptcy Judges Modify Mortgages

Rep. John Conyers Jr. helped push through the home mortgage bankruptcy legislation that was opposed by the financial industry.
Rep. John Conyers Jr. helped push through the home mortgage bankruptcy legislation that was opposed by the financial industry. (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009; Page D01

The House yesterday passed legislation that would allow bankruptcy judges to modify the terms of troubled home mortgages, overcoming fierce opposition from the financial industry.

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The bill, a package of housing-related initiatives, passed 234 to 191, largely along party lines. It now heads to the Senate, where it will face a tougher fight but has the backing of some powerful members.

Under the legislation, bankruptcy judges could cut the principal on a homeowner's mortgage as well as reduce the interest rate and extend the terms -- provisions known as cramdowns.

"I wish we had done this a year and a half ago," said Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), who had sponsored a version of the bill. "If we had, we would be much further along in getting a handle on the foreclosure crisis."

The housing package is a key part of President Obama's $75 billion foreclosure prevention plan, launched Wednesday, that includes initiatives to pay lenders to make troubled mortgages more affordable. The legislation also makes changes to Hope for Homeowners, a government program to refinance distressed loans that so far has failed to gain traction.

The measure was opposed by banks, which have argued for years that it would drive up their losses and that homeowners would flood bankruptcy courts looking for relief. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the change would increase bankruptcy filings by about 350,000 in the next 10 years.

This year, the measure also faced opposition from moderate Democrats who forced concessions that require, among other things, a homeowner to share with the lender any profit from the eventual sale of the home if a judge lowers the principal balance. The compromise version also gives preference to reducing a homeowner's interest rate over cutting the principal balance.

"We are pleased that the House moved to limit the harm this bill will do to consumers, and we want to work with the Senate to further contain the damage," David G. Kittle, chairman of the Mortgage Bankers Association, an industry group, said in a statement.

The administration has called the cramdown provision the stick that lenders will face if they do not do enough to help troubled homeowners. Credit Suisse has estimated that the change could cut foreclosures by 20 percent.

Under current bankruptcy law, a judge can modify mortgage terms for second homes but not for primary residences. In those cases, bankruptcy could delay a foreclosure but not stop it.

"It is only fair that we offer average families the same alternative to foreclosure that has been available under the law for many years to owners of vacation homes, investment properties, private jets and luxury yachts," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who helped push the legislation through the House. While "some mortgage lenders will not get every penny now owed to them on the mortgage paper they hold, on balance they are going to get a lot more than if these families have no other choice than to fall into foreclosure."

Sharan Powers and her husband tried to use the bankruptcy process to save their Fairfax home last year. The couple fell behind on their payments after her husband's salary dropped because of declining demand for the copiers and fax machines he sells.

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