Yet another housing bailout on the way

Obama administration unveils plan to prop up state and local agencies that provide mortgages to first-time and lower-income homebuyers.

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By Tami Luhby, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Just as federal officials seek to wind down many bailout programs, the Obama administration announced Monday yet another initiative to prop up the housing market.

Administration officials unveiled a plan to aid state and local housing finance agencies, which provide mortgages to first-time and lower-income homebuyers and enable the development or rehabilitation of rental properties. Officials declined to put a pricetag on the program, but said there would be no cost to taxpayers.

"This initiative is critical to helping working families maintain access to affordable rental housing and homeownership in tough economic times," said Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

Under the initiative, the Treasury Department, along with Fannie Mae (FNM, Fortune 500) and Freddie Mac (FRE, Fortune 500), will purchase housing bonds issued by the finance agencies. This will give the groups the funding needed to make new loans. Also, the government will provide a temporary credit program to allow the agencies to refinance their existing bonds to more favorable terms.

The measure will enable housing agencies to lend to hundreds of thousands of families and enable the development or rehabilitation of tens of thousands of rental units, administration officials said. The agencies operate in all 50 states and in many cities.

The agencies will pay fees to participate in the program, which officials say will cover its cost. They are still working with the agencies to determine the extent of support needed. Earlier news reports said the initiative could cost as much as $35 billion.

The finance agencies have had a tough time funding mortgages since the bond markets went haywire last year. As a whole, they are operating at only 20% to 25% of their usual capacity, with some groups halting their lending completely, said Susan Dewey, president of the National Council of State Housing Agencies.

While the administration says the program comes at no cost to taxpayers, the Treasury Department is ultimately responsible if an agency defaults on its debt payments.

The agencies have a good track record. They generally make 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages and require full documentation. The delinquency rate on agency mortgages is comparable to that of prime loans given to homeowners with good credit backgrounds, according to administration officials.

While the government is starting to pull back its support of the banking industry, officials said it is too early to tell when it will withdraw from the housing market. Congress is considering extending an $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers, which ends next month.

The credit will have been used by 1.8 million homebuyers, at least 355,000 of whom would not have bought a house without the tax break, by the end of November, according to estimates by the National Association of Realtors. To top of page

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