Elmer Smith: Fattah, Casey swoop in to help families facing foreclosure

Posted: May 10, 2011

CHAKA FATTAH and Bob Casey hit town yesterday like two sailors out to blow a month's pay on a weekend shore leave.

They had nearly $106 million in bridge loans burning holes in their pockets. It's for Pennsylvanians facing foreclosure.

The trick is to get it to the people who need it before the funding stream dries up. Eligible homeowners must wade through reams of red tape and get their applications in before October, when this golden carriage turns back into a pumpkin.

"The last thing we want," said John Dodds, of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, "is for any of this money to go back to Washington."

So Dodds, U.S. Rep. Fattah, U.S. Sen. Casey, five City Council members and about 30 sign-waving citizens did some tub-thumping in the Mayor's Reception Room at City Hall yesterday.

The Emergency Homeowners Loan Program is modeled on Pennsylvania's Homeowners Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program, introduced by Fattah when he was a state senator. HEMAP worked so well here, the state actually made money from interest on loan repayments.

Fattah had been trying to implement it on a national level for almost a decade.

"I introduced it in '02, '04, '06 and '08," Fattah said. "We finally got it passed in 2010."

Even then, it took some legislative sleight of hand to get it through. Casey attached it to a Wall Street reform bill that passed in the Senate last July.

"That was the train that was leaving the station," Fattah said in commending Casey's maneuver.

The program offers bridge loans of up to $50,000 for up to 24 months. The loan is forgiven at the rate of 20 percent a year for people who retain their homes. Borrowers must be at least three-months delinquent because of medical expenses or a job loss through no fault of their own. The property must be their principal residence, and the borrower must demonstrate a good payment record prior to the event that produced the reduction of income.

Even with those restrictions, Casey said, thousands of Pennsylvanians are eligible. Only 74 applications had been approved by yesterday. An additional 600 are in the pipeline.

At that rate, they'd be lucky to reach a fraction of the eligible borrowers before the Sept. 30 deadline.

But Pennsylvania's experience with HEMAP and the work of a motivated community of housing activists improves those odds considerably.

Pennsylvania and Delaware are among the five states where the Emergency Homeowners Loan Program is up and running. Those five all had "substantially similar" programs like HEMAP in place that HUD could filter the money through.

The 74 already approved benefited from a petition PUP filed in January that led Common Pleas Judge Pamela Dembe to delay sheriff sales so that eligible borrowers could apply for EHLP.

"We were fortunate in Pennsylvania," Dodds said. "But how many people have lost their houses in the last six months while HUD figured out how to implement the thing?

"It's not like they're splitting the atom. Why is this so hard?"

And why so late? Casey said there were 2.9 million foreclosure filings in 2010, most of them in the 45 states where the program is not even accepting applications yet. Although there are some signs that the economy is improving, "Many families are in the midst of the crisis," Casey said.

HUD spokesman Lemar Wooley emailed a response when I asked why it is taking so long to get the program in place.

"The program was delayed," said Wooley, "because of its complexity and HUD's desire to do it right the first time."

That's going to be small consolation to the families who lose their homes while HUD works the kinks out of this thing.

Meanwhile, the meter is running here. A couple dozen agencies that can get you through the process are listed on the websites of the city's Office of Housing and Community Development, PUP and the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

"Don't suffer in silence," Fattah said to distressed homeowners. "You paid taxes.

"Now you can benefit from some of those taxes you paid over the years."

Send email to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: www.philly.com/ElmerSmith

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