Homeowner funds headed Pa.'s way

A foreslosure sign is displayed on a house in Canton, Mich. Some aid programs face an uncertain future in Congress.
A foreslosure sign is displayed on a house in Canton, Mich. Some aid programs face an uncertain future in Congress.

It will get $105 million. It got a boost as its state program was a model for federal aid.

Posted: April 03, 2011

Seven months after the government announced a $1 billion plan to help jobless homeowners stave off foreclosure, Pennsylvania is finally getting the $105.8 million it had been promised.

In fact, Pennsylvania will be the first of the 27 states participating in the Emergency Homeowners Loan Program to begin processing applications, starting this month.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Friday that the state Housing Finance Agency's 28-year-old Homeowners Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program, known as HEMAP, is "substantially similar" to the federal program, "thereby allowing Pennsylvania to begin implementing the program itself."

The federal effort actually was modeled after the state program, which has helped more than 45,000 unemployed homeowners keep their houses since the early 1980s.

For the unemployed, their advocates, local officials, and the state Housing Finance Agency, which will administer the Emergency Homeowners Loan Program and had been wondering when it would see the money, the HUD announcement was welcome.

"The $105.8 million means real help for real people, and it comes at an appropriate time, as hundreds of Pennsylvania homeowners are facing imminent foreclosure," said Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.).

Because New Jersey's foreclosure rate exceeds the nation's, it has already received $112.2 million under the government's separate Hardest Hit Fund and is using it to roll out its Homekeeper program for unemployed and underemployed homeowners.

Advocates for Pennsylvania's unemployed had been pressing local HUD officials about the funding.

On March 25, John Dodds of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project and 100 jobless homeowners facing foreclosure had a rally at the local HUD office, seeking answers.

In December, Dodds' group used the promise of the emergency-loan program's funding to persuade Common Pleas Court President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe to postpone sheriff's sales that would have included up to 1,600 homes of jobless Philadelphians.

Dembe declined requests for a continued postponement, and sheriff's sales are set to resume this week. In a compromise, no deed will be issued for 90 days after the sale at auction of a foreclosed home whose owner could be eligible for the program.

At a meeting with housing counselors Tuesday at the Philadelphia Fed, Richard Ott, deputy director of HUD's regional homeownership center overseeing activities in 15 states, was asked again about the program.

Don Kelly of the Urban Affairs Coalition of Greater Philadelphia told Ott that Friday was the halfway point in the life of the program, which expires Sept. 30.

"Thousands of homeowners need help," Kelly said, adding that the delay might have political origins "but people are suffering."

Ott responded that HUD "recognizes what the delays are doing," but he declined to speculate on the political backdrop in Washington.

Politics, however, may have had something to do with the delay.

Republicans, who took control of the U.S. House in November, have targeted many Obama administration programs designed to reduce foreclosures through modification of problem mortgages.

The Home Affordable Modification Program, the administration's showpiece, has permanently altered 600,000 loans - well below the original, perhaps optimistic, goal of four million to seven million loans modified by a 2012 deadline. But in March, the House Financial Services Committee sent bills to the full House that would end HAMP and three other initiatives, including the Emergency Homeowners Loan Program.

On March 11, the House voted, 242-177, to cancel the $1 billion approved for the emergency-loan program. The Democrat-controlled Senate still must vote, and, should it also decide to rescind the program, it is likely Obama would veto the effort.

In the meantime, Pennsylvania's HEMAP program has been struggling. Friday's announcement that the federal money is coming and that the state can start processing applications is likely to be a shot in the arm for the 28-year-old program.

HEMAP is receiving zero money in the 2011-12 state budget, according to its director, Daryl Rotz.

"Our main challenge is funding," Rotz said. Loan repayments, which in 28 years exceeded the amount of aid the state provided in that time, were the program's sole source of support from 1998 to 2004, when the jobless rate was low, he said.

But demands had skyrocketed since 2005, Rotz said, and in the intervening years the state had been providing $9.5 million annually.

The state plans to use the Emergency Homeowners Loan Program to help 4,000 to 5,000 people, he said.

When the nation's foreclosure crisis began in 2006, the advantage Pennsylvania had was that HEMAP was in place, said Rick Sharga, chief economist at RealtyTrac Inc., of Irvine, Calif., which tracks distressed housing.

"It also didn't have quite the volume of exotic loans as other states, so Pennsylvania is in better shape than most," Sharga said.

Congress also seeks to cut to zero funding for federally certified housing counselors who shepherd struggling homeowners through the aid process, said Liz Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.

With all the paperwork required for each application, it will still be a challenge to get the program up to speed by the Sept. 30 deadline, to help the largest number who need it.

Rotz added: "I don't believe the foreclosure epidemic can be rectified in six months."

Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com, or Twitter: @alheavens.

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