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Homeowner bailout plan criticized

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2007

(AP) — As more states and cities struggle to find money to bail out homeowners caught up in the housing downturn, some Americans are wondering why governments should be rewarding people for greed or irresponsibility.

Some, such as Thomas Roach of Sarasota, Fla., are actively campaigning against a bailout for people who, using easy credit and exotic mortgages, bought more home than they could afford on a bet they would make easy profits from rising real estate prices.

Even before President Bush put forth his proposals last month to help troubled homeowners, Mr. Roach, a 30-year-old information technology specialist for a financial firm, had posted an online petition called Tax Payers Against a Wall Street and Mortgage Bailout. It has collected nearly 3,800 signatures in two weeks.

"What the government doesn't realize is that these people knew what they were getting into. They just thought that these housing prices were going to keep going up and up," Mr. Roach said. "A bailout sets such a bad precedent. You're encouraging bad behavior."

Mr. Roach is one of many questioning the government's role in repairing the mortgage mess even as various federal and local plans try to stave off a potential deluge of foreclosures. Some states and counties are using bond sales or fees collected from late payment of property taxes to help homeowners refinance into traditional fixed-rate loans; the federal government is considering giving money to agencies that counsel delinquent borrowers.

Most of the troubles in the mortgage market are the result of adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARMs, which often feature very low introductory interest rates. Once the rate adjusts after two or three years, many homeowners can't meet their monthly payments.

Nearly 2 million homeowners have ARMs that will adjust higher by the end of 2008. Of those, the Federal Housing Administration estimates 500,000 could go into foreclosure.

On Aug. 31, Mr. Bush offered a set of modest plans, including proposals to make it easier to refinance ARMS through the FHA and to temporarily relieve homeowners of taxes on forgiven mortgage debt.

Congress is set to vote this month on funding for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, which includes $100 million earmarked for nonprofit housing groups to help homeowners refinance.

Some state and local governments already have stepped in with more comprehensive efforts.

In July, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency introduced a loan program that helps homeowners switch to traditional 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at lower interest rates. The housing agency will buy the loans from lenders, financed by selling municipal bonds in blocks of $25 million, said Brian Hudson, executive director of the housing agency.

Also in July, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and the state's agency for affordable housing announced plans to curb rising foreclosures by raising cash through bond sales. The bonds will cover a portion of a $250 million fund to help struggling borrowers refinance.

The bulk of the fund is provided by Fannie Mae, the federally sponsored buyer of home mortgages, which has an interest in avoiding foreclosures, as do all the companies that securitized these loans.

Cuyahoga County in Ohio — home to Cleveland, one of the hardest-hit foreclosure areas in the country — is using $3 million in penalties accrued from fees for late payment of property taxes to make loans to help homeowners catch up on their mortgages. The county also has formed a task force, made up of representatives from government, the lending industry and nonprofit consumer groups, to look at ways to reduce the foreclosure rate in the state.

Other state and local governments are considering similar measures to prevent foreclosures, but many of the proposals still are in the planning stages.

Moral lessons aside, some economists argue that targeted help from the government might be necessary in the current environment.

"People should be held responsible for their actions, but you need to balance that with the idea that an important role for the government is to protect people against events that are somewhat out of their control," said Doug Elmendorf, an economist at the Brookings Institution.

Others, however, including people who sat on the sidelines as the housing market boomed out of control, say the government needs to back off and let the market work itself out.

Sacramento, Calif., resident Steve Law said he is aware that lending agencies could fail and buyers are losing their homes but said he doesn't think taxpayers should be asked to come to the rescue.

"I don't really feel we should bail anyone out because that costs everyone in the end. They got themselves into the situation," he said of lenders and overstretched home buyers.

Mr. Law is living in a friend's home while he tries to save enough money for a down payment. After a divorce three years ago, he's biding his time until housing prices drop to levels he thinks are reasonable.

Jim Gaines, a research economist at the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University, also thinks a hands-off approach — other than policing for fraud and predatory lending — is needed from the government.

"I don't know whether if it's the government's role to protect people from themselves," he said.

Mr. Gaines also pointed out that the institutions in the market probably will clean up the mess faster than the government because "they're the ones that have money on the table."

Already, lenders, which have been criticized for allowing loose underwriting standards to create these toxic mortgages, are working overtime to rework mortgages for struggling borrowers.

Some lenders, such as Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, are contacting borrowers six months before their interest rate resets to evaluate whether they can manage a higher payment. If not, the lender will modify their loans.

Others are teaming up with local housing and credit counselors to come up with a workable repayment plan or loan workout.

"I don't know of any lender right now that wants to take back a property in what is, or will be, a down real estate market," said Howard Dvorkin, founder of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Any lender that is not willing to be flexible in this environment is foolish and will certainly experience more defaults than their less stringent counterparts."

Mr. Roach, the creator of the anti-bailout petition, is a fan of these loan modifications — as long as lenders do it on their own dime.

"They put people in those loans," he said, "and they should be the ones to help them out."