Federal foreclosure prevention program is struggling

Under the main Obama administration program to ease foreclosures, fewer than 37,000 homeowners received permanently lowered mortgage payments in July. Modification cancellations are up.

By Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times August 21, 2010

Reporting from Washington

Just as the housing market recovery has stalled, so has the Obama administration’s main program to ease home foreclosures.

Only 36,695 homeowners received permanently lowered mortgage payments in July through the much-criticized Home Affordable Modification Program, the smallest increase since December, administration officials said Friday.

And the number of people dropping out of the program continued to soar. Overall, nearly half the homeowners who entered the program since it launched in March of last year have dropped out.

Many had hoped the $75-billion program would be a silver bullet to the foreclosure problem, but it’s turned out to be a dud, said independent banking analyst Bert Ely. That’s not surprising, he said, given the depth of the housing market crash and recession, combined with a slow recovery.

“Even with a substantial reduction in mortgage payment and even some reduction in principal, you still have people who are over their head financially because of their reduced financial circumstances,” Ely said. “Isn’t it time to just rethink this whole business of modification … and let the market clear through foreclosures and short sales?”

The Los Angeles-Orange County area continued to have the most active trial and permanent modifications under the program, with 44,617 total modifications in July, or 6.6% of the national total. But that was down from 48,846 total modifications in June.

The Inland Empire was third nationwide, with 35,169 total modifications in July, or 5.2% of the total.

So far, 434,716 homeowners nationwide have received permanent modifications since the program began last year. The pace had picked up significantly starting in December after administration officials began pressuring mortgage servicers to convert more three-month trials under the program into permanent modifications.

The number of permanent modifications nearly tripled from January to May. Even in June, the administration reported that more than 50,000 new permanently modified mortgages were added.

July’s slowdown in the program’s growth comes amid a struggling real estate market.

During the second quarter of the year, there were a record 269,952 home foreclosures, up 38% from the same period a year earlier, according to Irvine research firm RealtyTrac. Last month, Southern California home sales plunged 21.4% compared with a year earlier, according to research firm MDA DataQuick of San Diego.

“While there has been some stabilization in the housing market, it remains clear that we have more work ahead,” said Raphael Bostic, an assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Obama administration program provides cash incentives to servicers to modify mortgages. Homeowners who qualify first get a three-month trial modification with lower payments. If they make those payments, the modification can be made permanent. Only at that point does the servicer get the incentive payment.

The administration’s stated goal was to modify 3 million to 4 million mortgages through 2012.

The pace of new, temporary mortgage modifications under the program slowed in July, increasing just 1.3% to 1.3 million. Overall, about 47% of trial modifications started since the program began have been canceled. In addition, 12,912 permanent modifications have been canceled, mostly because the homeowner missed at least three straight payments.

Increasing numbers of cancellations were the latest problem for the administration’s modification program, which has been plagued by complaints from homeowners of bureaucratic runarounds by servicers, including lost paperwork and unreturned phone calls.

Herbert M. Allison Jr., the Treasury Department’s assistant secretary for financial stability, said the administration expected cancellations to continue as mortgage servicers work through earlier modifications that were made without documentation. Those stated-income modifications were needed last year because so many people were in need of quick foreclosure assistance, he said.

Many of the homeowners who got those early modifications under the program were removed because it turned out they “did not meet the qualifications for various reasons, such as income levels or the fact that they were not in the home itself,” Allison said.

But many of those who were canceled out of the program have been helped by modifications made outside of the Obama administration program.

For the eight largest mortgage servicers, including Bank of America, CitiMortgage and Wells Fargo Bank, 45% of homeowners whose trial modifications were cancelled received an alternative modification. Wells Fargo reported Friday that 87% of the 520,399 active modifications it had done from Jan. 1 to July 31 were through its own programs.

Administration officials said the housing market had stabilized significantly since Obama took office in January 2009, and stressed that homeowners with permanent modifications had a median payment reduction of 36%, or more than $500 a month.

But Bostic said administration officials are not “in happy land” and that the market was not yet “out of the woods.”

Ely said one flaw with the administration’s modification program is that it does not adequately take into account all the other debts faced by homeowners.

“There’s been this hype that you could wave a magic wand, change a few things [with the mortgage payment] and everything would be hunky-dory,” Ely said. “It’s not playing out this way.”

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