WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration's effort to help homeowners avoid foreclosure may not achieve its goal of helping 3 million to 4 million borrowers and may simply delay mortgage defaults for many, a government watchdog group says.
The Congressional Oversight Panel, charged with making regular assessments of the $700 billion financial rescue fund enacted last year, said the Treasury Department should consider whether to improve the current $50 billion program or adopt new programs to meet an expected rise in foreclosures fed by increased unemployment.
The panel's report is scheduled to be made public Friday.
It comes a day after the Treasury said its mortgage relief effort has helped 500,000 homeowners and that it was still on track to help up to 4 million homeowners within three years.
"We've put significant pressure on servicers to ramp up their efforts," said Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan. "We're holding them to higher performance standards."
But the oversight panel, chaired by Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, concluded that the foreclosure crisis has now moved beyond the subprime mortgage market that ensnared many homeowners, particularly low-income families. The program, the report states, was not designed to deal with foreclosures caused by unemployment.
"Serious concerns remain about the program's scope, scale and permanence," Warren told reporters in a conference call. "In particular it isn't clear that 500,000 modifications will be enough to put a serious dent in the foreclosure crisis or to dampen the impact of foreclosure on the broader economy."
Foreclosures, the report said, are now stalking families who took out conventional, fixed-rate mortgages and put down payments of 10 to 20 percent on homes that would have been within their means in a normal market.
Treasury's program, known as the Home Affordable Modification Program, "is targeted at the housing crisis as it existed six months ago, rather than as it exists right now," the report says.
Treasury spokeswoman Meg Reilly said Thursday that while the mortgage relief program is available to the jobless, "we continue to study further ways to help unemployed homeowners."
The oversight panel accepted the report by a vote of 3-2, with the committee's two Republican members voting against it.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, one of the two dissenters, described the foreclosure mitigation program as a failure and rejected suggestions in the report that the program should be expanded.
"Regardless of whether one believes foreclosure mitigation can truly work, taxpayers who are struggling to pay their own mortgage should not be forced to bail out their neighbors through such an inefficient and transparency-deficient program," he said.
The majority's report, however, said that rather than abandon the program, Treasury should improve it. Rising foreclosures, the report asserted, could have devastating effects not only on families, but also on local communities and the economy in general. The benefits of avoiding foreclosure would likely outweigh the cost to taxpayers, the report said.
The report's underlying theme was that foreclosures were bound to take a turn for the worse and that Treasury did not appear prepared to confront a rise in defaults.
Many housing advocates have been disappointed with the plan's progress and say that getting a loan modification is still a battle. Most lenders, they say, are still unwilling to reduce a borrower's principal balance, a key concern in areas like California, Florida and Nevada where prices have been cut in half in some areas.
"It's not working fast enough and it's not working broadly enough," said Kevin Stein, associate director of the California Reinvestment Coalition, based in San Francisco. "There are no obvious consequences to the servicers for not doing what they're supposed to be doing."
Lenders have their own criticisms. Since the report card released by the government excludes modifications made outside the government guidelines, some say they're not getting enough credit.
"The American public has a right to know that there are other modifications that are being done that are equally as compelling," said Teri Schrettenbrunner, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman.
To speed up the application process, the Treasury Department on Thursday launched a round of changes, including standardized forms.
At the end of last month, about 16 percent of those eligible were enrolled in the program. Offers had been extended to nearly 770,000 homeowners, or about one in four eligible borrowers.
Nearly all the borrowers who have signed up so far are in an initial three-month trial phase. They are supposed to be extended for five years if the homeowners make their payments on time and return the necessary documents.
"While reaching half a million trial modifications nearly a month ahead of schedule is an important milestone, we recognize that the next challenge is converting borrowers from trial to permanent modifications," Reilly said.
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