Obama turns up heat on mortgage servicers

Administration will tell financial institutions they must do more to help borrowers. 'We think we can do even more,' official says.

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By Tami Luhby, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- As complaints mount about President Obama's foreclosure prevention program, the administration is ratcheting up the pressure on mortgage servicers.

Financial executives will meet with Treasury Department and administration housing officials on July 28 to discuss how the loan modification and refinancing plan has been implemented. The administration plans to grill servicers that have done few modifications or have had many complaints.

Officials also want financial institutions to hire more people and train them better, expand their call centers, and send more mailings to eligible borrowers, according to a letter sent to servicers last week. The government also said servicers need to establish a way for borrowers to contest their treatment or denial.

"There is a general need for servicers to devote substantially more resources to this program for it to fully succeed and achieve the objectives we all share," according to the letter, signed by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan. "We are asking all servicers expand their servicing capacity and improve the execution quality of loan modifications."

Loan servicers' efforts will be made public on Aug. 4, when the Obama administration plans to start issuing monthly progress reports.

The updates will include data for each servicer participating Obama's $75 billion program. Specifically, they will feature the number of trial modification offers extended and underway by each institution, as well as the number of final modifications and the success of those adjustments.

So far, participating servicers have extended 325,000 loan modification offers and have 160,000 three-month trial adjustments underway, said Herbert Allison, who heads Treasury's financial stability efforts, at a Senate Banking Committee hearing Thursday.

Under the plan, eligible borrowers who are in or at risk of default may be able to lower their monthly payments to no more than 31% of their pre-tax income through a loan modification. The modifications are made permanent after the homeowner makes three on-time payments.

Servicers have also refinanced 43,000 loans under the administration's program that allows people with little or no equity in their home to refinance and take advantage of today's low mortgage rates. People can participate even if they have loans of up to 125% of the value of their property, as long as they meet other criteria.

"Even though we are making rapid progress, we think we can do even more," Allison told lawmakers.

Many industry insiders fear that the foreclosure crisis in outpacing efforts to help troubled borrowers. Thursday's hearing came on the same day as a report revealed a record 1.53 million properties were in the foreclosure process during the first half of 2009, up 15% more than the same period of 2008. One out of every 84 homes received at least one filing between January and June, according to RealtyTrac.

The Obama program has been plagued by problems since its February debut. As soon as most servicers started processing applications in April and May, borrowers began reporting that their paperwork was being lost, their calls were going unreturned and decisions on their cases were being delayed.

"This is disgraceful," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., head of the banking committee. "Why am I still reading about lost files, under-staffed and under-trained servicers, and hours spent on hold on the phone?"

When the president unveiled his program on Feb. 18, he said it could help up to 9 million people. Allison said that goal was still attainable by the end of 2012.

To achieve those figures, the administration is trying to make sure borrowers in need know where to turn. It is pressing banks to do more outreach, as well as holding its own educational events.

Among the issues holding up loan modifications are second liens, which are often owned by banks as opposed to investors. The administration issued revised guidelines in April saying that participating servicers had to modify or extinguish second liens if they adjust the first. But banks are waiting for additional information, which officials say will be available in coming weeks.

After lawmakers grilled administration officials, the committee heard from a borrower and consumer advocates reiterating problems with the program. Mortgage executives from Wells Fargo and Bank of America also spoke, defended their efforts to assist troubled homeowners.

Wells Fargo was in the process of finalizing 52,000 loan modifications under the president's program, as of June 30, said Mary Coffin, head of mortgage servicing for the bank. Only 55% of its seriously delinquent borrowers are eligible for it. During the first half of this year, it boosted its default team staff by 54% to 11,500.

Some 80,000 Bank of America customers, meanwhile, are in trial modifications or are responding to offers, said Allen Jones, the bank's default management executive. Bank of America also has funded nearly 40,000 refinances applications. It has 7,400 people dedicated to home retention, double the number a year ago. They respond to an average of 80,000 calls a day. To top of page

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