Monica Yant Kinney: Who killed Pa.'s foreclosure-rescue program?

Posted: July 06, 2011

Pity the Pennsylvanians who've recently been laid off and found themselves late on their mortgage. If only they had fallen on hard times sooner.

As Gov. Corbett signed his first grinchy budget, he inexplicably killed a program that had brought national acclaim to the state.

I speak of the Homeowners' Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program, HEMAP to its legion of admirers. Then again, if you've never heard of it, consider yourself lucky.

Created in the early 1980s to stave off further disaster from the collapsing steel industry, HEMAP offered modest, short-term loans only to those applicants likely to return to work quickly.

More than 200,000 people applied, but only 45,000 made the cut, receiving an average of $10,000. Roughly 80 percent of them kept their homes and repaid their loans.

Over nearly 30 years, HEMAP received $230 million in state appropriations - and repayments of more than $250 million. On paper, that looks like a profit, but repayments were funneled into additional loans, furthering the efficiency.

Both the Wall Street Journal and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York raved about the way HEMAP rewarded personal accountability as it stabilized communities. So did bankers and Realtors. Even the Obama administration took notice, modeling a national effort after the Pennsylvania program.

So who killed HEMAP and why?

A statehouse mystery

"No one knows," fumes Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.). "We're not talking about a lot of dough here. We can fund this thing for $10 million a year."

Must be a partisan feud?

Nope. HEMAP had fans on both sides of the aisle.

"I have no idea" why Corbett axed the aid, sighs Rep. John Taylor (R., Phila.). "I'd love to tell you we had an open line of communication, but that's not the case. That's why I voted 'no' on the budget. It's great to make these 'no-new-taxes' pledges, but then people like me see the real-life ramifications."

The foreclosure crisis, Taylor explains, "is not a Philadelphia problem or a poor-people problem. In fact, if you have a more expensive house, you get whacked sooner."

John Dodds, with the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, tells me he has heard that "someone in the administration has an ideological opposition to the state helping people save their homes."

If that's true, the clod should have the guts to say so publicly.

I wish I could share with you Corbett's response, but, as you know, the governor rarely speaks. Even his media aides don't say much.

"These are difficult economic times," offers Eric Shirk when I ask about this budget victim. "Difficult decisions had to be made."

That's such a good line, I wonder if homeowners could use it - citing the source, of course - when lenders send a notice that foreclosure proceedings have begun.

Pause in home-snatching

Because, when HEMAP was operating, the program's mere existence automatically put home-snatching on pause for months while homeowners applied and underwent financial counseling. In many cases, that relief alone got folks back on track. So they saved their homes even if they didn't qualify for a loan.

Now, by shuttering HEMAP, the governor has inadvertently hit fast-forward on the foreclosure process.

In a devilish twist, the Corbett administration wants panicked Pennsylvanians at risk of losing their homes to seek out the federal program modeled after HEMAP.

Shirk tells me to steer those in crisis to HUD's Emergency Homeowners' Loan Program (http://1.usa.gov/jxOUKq). Pennsylvania received $105 million to distribute, but the money comes with strings that could strangle.

The federal loans won't stay foreclosures. And all EHLP funds must be spent by September.


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com or philly.com/kinney. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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