- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2009

The Obama administration said Thursday that its mortgage relief effort has helped 500,000 homeowners, and officials maintain the program is on track despite its disappointing launch.

The $50 billion program, started in March, is designed to reduce foreclosures by lowering borrowers’ monthly payments to more affordable levels. The government still forecasts the program will help between 3 million and 4 million borrowers within three years.

“We’ve put significant pressure on servicers to ramp up their efforts,” said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. “We’re holding them to higher performance standards.”

But with unemployment continuing to rise and millions of homeowners holding mortgages far above their property values, the program has plenty of doubters. About 12 percent of homeowners are at least one payment behind, and many aren’t eligible for the Obama plan. And even those who get help often fall behind again.

“It’s going to have a fairly marginal effect” on the foreclosure crisis, said Laurie Goodman, senior managing director of Amherst Securities in New York. “At the end of the day, you’re going to have relatively few successful modifications.”

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 such as California, Florida and Nevada where prices have been cut in half in some places.

“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. Because 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.

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