Real Estate

Foreclosure rescue: No help for you

A plan put together by U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to stave off foreclosures leaves out a lot troubled borrowers.

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By Joe Light, Money Magazine staff reporter


NEW YORK (Money Magazine) -- Already behind on your mortgage payments? No help there.

Able to make payments even after the rate on your adjustable mortgage moves higher? You can manage on your own.

In a speech Monday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson began to address efforts to stave off a foreclosure epidemic by lenders, those who service loans, and investors who hold mortgage debt.

Despite much speculation that Paulson is close to helping coordinate a rescue plan that would broadly freeze levels on adjustable mortgages before they reset to higher rates, Paulson gave few details on how such a plan would work.

He did however say who the plan would help, and it would probably leave out a large number of homeowners stretched by their mortgage payments.

Paulson divided subprime borrowers into four groups. The plan would be most geared toward those who can afford the mortgage now but won't be able to after the adjustment.

The other three groups are largely left out: Borrowers who can afford an adjustment; those who are already behind on their payments; and those who can refinance into a fixed-rate loan

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, 5.12% of outstanding loans were in default in the second quarter, a rate about 17% higher than a year ago.

The plan would also seemingly exclude borrowers who hold option-ARMs that aren't subprime. These are loans that start with extremely low "teaser" rates before rising dramatically a few years into the loan.

It has also been reported that homes that were bought as investments - as opposed to for the purpose of living in - would be excluded.

More than 50% of the increase in delinquent mortgages are actually investor-related, said Wachovia senior economist Mark Vitner. "It's hard to conceive how many people are actually going to meet this criteria. There's nothing at all in there that addresses investors," said Vitner, who added he doesn't support an investor bailout.

The group that will be helped represents just a narrow slice of the subprime borrowers in trouble, said Michael Shea, housing director of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). "It helps. Don't get me wrong. ... But it's disappointing that we are nearly a year into the crisis and the Treasury Secretary is dealing with the easiest part of the problem."

"It won't help the majority," said Lisa Rice, vice president of the National Fair Housing Alliance, a national organization dedicated to ending housing discrimination. "It's only going to help that one bucket, and it's hard to say how large that bucket will be without knowing the details of how the Treasury Department will assess affordability."

What tools would be available to the other groups? Paulson said that the Administration would recommend that state and local organizations extend their programs to help stretched owners refinance into fixed-rate mortgages. He also pointed to proposed modifications to the Federal Housing Administration that would make FHA loans, which can be more affordable, easier to get.

The limited scope of the plan has caused some consumer advocates to ask if it goes far enough.

Convention in the lending industry is that a family can afford to spend 28 percent of its gross income on housing. But an index put together by the National Association of Home Builders and Wells Fargo suggests that most homeowners spend more than that.

According to the NAHB-Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index, only 42 percent of homes sold in the third quarter were affordable to households earning the nation's median income.

What's considered affordable can also be lender specific, Rice said. Joann Jorgensen bought her five-bedroom home in Alexandria, Va. in 2004 with two adjustable-rate mortgages. When she recently tried to get her lenders to lower their payments, the lenders calculated of how much Jorgensen had left after paying for housing and utilities.

The lenders calculation was more than $1,000 per month higher than what Jorgensen figured she would have.

"I don't know how they could have come back with that number," said Jorgensen.

If the government relies on mortgage counseling programs and state- or city-backed bailouts to address the rest of threatened homeowners, the foreclosure problem might get worse, said John Taylor, president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

"You can't counsel a loan down. This isn't happening because those people don't know how to pay their bills. They need a loan modification," he said. To top of page

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