March 14th, 2012 5:11 PM by Robin Bain
By ANNAMARIA ANDRIOTIS
In the next few months lenders will take new steps to help one million struggling homeowners pay their mortgages. But experts say if recent history is any guide, relief won't make it to that many doorsteps.
Over the past few years, the federal government's major mortgage relief programs helped just a fraction of the homeowners they initially set out to reach. The so-called Home Affordable Modification Program and the Home Affordable Refinance Program, both introduced in 2009, have so far assisted just 20% of the homeowners government officials projected. Other programs shuttered altogether after not gathering enough borrower or lender participation. In fact, the U.S. government's five major programs, which were projected to assist 13.4 million homeowners, only reached 1.9 million.
This week, the government filed the settlements it reached in its $25 billion agreement with banks over alleged foreclosure abuses. The five banks involved -- Ally Financial, Bank of America, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo -- will spend much of that money providing aid to homeowners by reducing mortgage principal, refinancing more mortgages and making payments to those they foreclosed on.
But while the settlement is legally binding, some housing experts predict the efforts may not have the impact government officials expect. For one, borrowers who owe more on their home than it's worth stand to receive a principal reduction of about $20,000 on average -- although those same borrowers are underwater by $51,000 on average, according to CoreLogic. And those who were foreclosed on between 2008 and 2011 stand to receive a meager $1,500 to $2,000. "Potential participants should temper their expectations," says Stuart Gabriel, director of the Ziman Center for Real Estate at the University of California, Los Angeles.
For their part, the lenders say they're committed to helping as many homeowners as possible. (Bank of America says it will even extend benefits to its customers that go beyond the requirements laid out in the settlement).
So far, big government mortgage programs haven't delivered nearly as much relief as they expected for homeowners. In each instance, a much smaller number of homeowners received the help than what was projected. To understand why homeowner assistance so often falls short, here's a look at what experts say went wrong with five of the major government relief efforts.
Launched in early 2009, the Home Affordable Modification Program is aimed at allowing struggling homeowners to lower their monthly payments. Borrowers -- who can still apply for HAMP -- can qualify if they signed up for their mortgage no later than Jan. 1, 2009, are employed, have a mortgage payment that's more than 31% of their pre-tax income, and can prove that they're at risk of -- or actually have -- fallen behind on their mortgage due to financial hardship. With many employees taking wage cuts as the recession gained steam, HAMP was hailed as a program that could bring relief to many.
And while it did lead to permanent mortgage modification for nearly 940,000 homeowners, HAMP hasn't yet met the government's initial projections of three to four million. Experts say the program encountered setbacks from the start. To begin with, a big marketing campaign to attract eligible homeowners didn't materialize. HAMP's rules weren't fully developed when the program began, and guidelines were repeatedly revised creating confusion among applicants. Initially, lenders could sign up homeowners for a modification while giving them 90 days to provide documentation proving their financial hardship. In many instances, borrowers failed to do that and they were dropped from the program, says Keith Gumbinger, vice president at mortgage-data firm HSH Associates. That rule was later changed to require documentation before a homeowner enrolled in HAMP.
The Treasury Department, which oversees this program, says HAMP's impact goes beyond its own modifications. Since HAMP's launch, more than 2.7 million private modifications -- many following the same steps the program established -- have been offered to homeowners, says Andrea Risotto, a Treasury spokeswoman. HAMP "catalyzed improvements in modifications across the board," she says.
The Home Affordable Refinance Program began in March 2009 to help homeowners refinance in instances when they owed more on their home than it's worth. The program kicked in as mortgage rates were dropping, allowing homeowners who previously couldn't refinance to get a new, lower rate that would make their monthly payments smaller. The government hoped it would also keep underwater homeowners from walking away from their homes, a trend that was picking up.
Three years into its existence, HARP has only helped about 20% of its intended homeowners. A big reason was that, in its infancy, HARP was only open to borrowers who owed up to 105% of their home's market value. In 2009, that accounted for roughly just 5% of homeowners with a mortgage, according to CoreLogic. Meanwhile, around 13% owed 105% to 125% while another 13% or so owed more than 125%. (HARP was later expanded to homeowners owing up to 125% of their home's value, and then changed again this past December; its newest incarnation dubbed HARP 2.0 removed the cap, allowing all underwater borrowers to qualify. The Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees HARP, says the latest changes are expected to boost enrollment in the program, which is scheduled to end in December 2013.)
Still, borrowers need to cross several hurdles before qualifying. Many lenders place their own limitations on which borrowers they'll work with, says Gumbinger, typically denying those who owe more than 105% of a home's value. (It's up to lenders to choose whether and how to participate in HARP.) Dave Stevens, president and CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association, says that's because lenders have a difficult time selling mortgages to the secondary market that are beyond 105% of a home's value and that many of them aren't able to hold these loans on their books. Still, he says, the new HARP rules have already boosted refinances: For the first week of March, HARP refis accounted for about 30% of all refis, compared to about 10% in January 2012.
Launched in 2010, the Federal Housing Administration's Short Refi Program is supposed to help homeowners who are current on their mortgage but at risk of defaulting because they have no equity in their homes. The program provides borrowers with a principal reduction while also refinancing them into a new mortgage insured by the FHA. To qualify, homeowners must have a non-FHA mortgage, be current on their mortgage, and owe more on their home than it's worth, among other requirements.
To boost participation, the government announced changes to the program this week to make it easier for more borrowers to qualify in part by allowing them to carry more debt. In addition, the program was extended through 2014. (It was supposed to end this year.)
To date the program has fallen far short of projections largely because most lenders have been reluctant to write down principal, says an official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the FHA Short Refi program. For underwater borrowers to refinance, they can't owe more than 115% of their home's market value. Anything over that will need to be forgiven or written off as a loss by their existing lender first. So, a borrower with a $130,000 mortgage on a home that's worth $100,000 would need to get his lender to agree to take a loss on $15,000 before he can get into the program.
Participation was low largely because lenders prefer to find other ways to work with struggling homeowners, says Stevens of the Mortgage Bankers Association. That includes modifying loans or temporarily lowering interest rates, he says. "There's a lot of concern about moral hazard whose loan do you write down and whose loan do you not?"
Introduced in 2007, the so-called FHASecure program was largely geared to borrowers with adjustable-rate mortgages who were struggling to make their payments because their rates reset. (Most ARM borrowers pay a fixed rate for the first few years of the loan, but after that the rate becomes variable and can rise or fall.) As rates rose, so did the chance homeowners would default on their mortgage.
In part, FHASecure struggled with bad timing, says an official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversaw the program. When the program rolled out, rates had stopped rising and were about to begin their descent. Many borrowers decided to hold onto their ARMs because with rates dropping their required monthly payments were shrinking, says Stevens of the Mortgage Bankers Association. ARM borrowers who wanted to refinance and were current on their mortgage could do that in the private market, outside the government program, he says.
In an effort to boost enrollment in FHASecure, the program expanded to include not just ARM borrowers who were current on their mortgage but also those who had missed up to three mortgage payments within that year. Still, that wasn't enough to get the program going. The government projected that around 80,000 homeowners would be helped, but by the end of 2008 just 3,290 had received relief when FHASecure came to an end.
As the subprime mortgage fallout intensified in the fall of 2008, the Hope for Homeowners program was created to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. The program called for lenders to voluntarily reduce the principal balance on mortgages to 90% of a home's value and to refinance the mortgage into a new loan that would be backed by the Federal Housing Administration.
But early on, it became evident that the program wouldn't come close to meeting the government's expectations. Five months after it went into effect, Hope for Homeowners had helped just one homeowner avoid foreclosure. Few lenders could comply with its provisions, says an official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversaw the program. Chief among their concerns was writing down balances and incurring those losses, experts say. In an attempt to boost enrollment, the program was adjusted so that lenders would write down a smaller amount of losses. Still, the program never took off and ended up helping just 764 homeowners when it ended in September 2011.