More homeowners get long-term help

By Tami Luhby, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Intense pressure from the Obama administration spurred loan servicers to ramp up the amount of permanent modifications they offered to troubled borrowers.

The number of long-term adjustments completed under the president's foreclosure prevention plan rose to 66,465 at the end of December, or 7.4% of all trial modifications started, up from 31,382 a month earlier.

Another 46,056 modifications are pending borrowers' final signatures, according to Treasury statistics released Friday. Another 48,924 were denied permanent modifications, mainly because they did not make their trial payments on time, did not hand in the needed paperwork or did not meet the program's criteria.

Meanwhile, the number of delinquent homeowners in trial modifications rose to 787,231, up from 697,026 a month earlier.

"Treasury is committed to working with servicers and borrowers to sustain this improved pace," said Phyllis Caldwell, chief of Treasury's Homeownership Preservation Office.

Administration officials increased pressure on servicers in November after the slow pace of conversions to permanent modifications raised concerns that the $75 billion plan will fall far short of its goal to help up to 4 million delinquent homeowners.

The administration ramped up its oversight of loan servicers' conversion operations, sending in SWAT teams to break up any logjams and requiring banks to submit updates twice daily on their efforts. Officials also called financial executives to Washington to urge them to quicken the conversion rate.

Housing experts, however, remain concerned that the rate of foreclosures still outpaces the help homeowners are receiving under the program. A record three million homeowners received at least one foreclosure filing in 2009, according to a RealtyTrac report released Thursday.

"We have a lot more to do if we're going to address the foreclosure crisis," said David Berenbaum, chief program officer for the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. "The servicers will have to step up to the plate."

One prominent forecasting group, Moody's Economy.com, said this week that it expects the Obama program to save only 400,000 to 1 million borrowers from foreclosure.

A lot of borrowers are too far underwater or don't have enough income to qualify for a permanent modification, said Celia Chen, senior director at Economy.com. Others will not be able to provide all the documentation needed.

Administration officials said they continue to review the program to make sure it is helping those in need, Chen said she doesn't think there's anything the government can do to keep these borrowers in their homes.

And once these homeowners go into foreclosure, it will hurt the housing market, she said.

"As more of these loans fail to make it to permanent modifications, a lot will go back on the market as foreclosures and that will depress home prices," said Chen, who expects home prices to fall another 10% by the third quarter of this year.

Trial to permanent

Under the president's plan, delinquent borrowers are put into trial modifications for several months to make sure they can handle the new payments and to give them time to submit their financial paperwork. Once the modification becomes permanent, servicers, investors and homeowners are eligible to receive thousands of dollars in incentive payments.

Overall, about three-quarters of people are making their payments on time, said Michael Barr, Treasury assistant secretary.

Loan servicers, however, have said they are having trouble getting the necessary documents from borrowers, while homeowners maintain that their financial institutions are repeatedly losing the paperwork. Once their files are complete, borrowers may be denied long-term help if they don't meet the program's criteria.

At Wells Fargo, for instance, a quarter of the 74,000 borrowers who had made three trial payments on time did not turn in all the required documents. Another 25% turned out not to be eligible for modification after their documents were reviewed. The remaining are expected to receive permanent modifications.

Who leads and who lags

Loan servicers efforts continue to vary widely. Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) led the pack by placing 47% of its eligible delinquent borrowers in trial modifications, while Saxon Mortgage, a subsidiary of Morgan Stanley (MS, Fortune 500), came in at 46%. Among the other major servicers, JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500) put 36% of eligible homeowners in trial modifications, while Wells Fargo (WFC, Fortune 500) put 34% in. Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500) continued to trail the pack with 19%.

In terms of longer-term assistance, Wells Fargo led the pack among the nation's largest servicers with 2.41% of its eligible delinquent borrowers in permanent modifications. Citi placed 2.1% and Chase 1.68%.

Bank of America, by far the nation's largest servicer, said it has implemented "extraordinary efforts" over the past two months to boost its conversion statistics. The servicer, which had converted only 98 homeowners by the end of November, increased that number to 3,183 a month later. That means only .3% of its eligible homeowners are in permanent modifications.

Asked repeatedly about the laggards during a conference call with reporters, Treasury officials declined to say what measures they would take to force servicers to improve their modification efforts or whether the banks had met their goals. To top of page

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