On the House: Don't count on Congress for relief

Posted: February 19, 2012

Since reporting the details of President Obama's latest housing recovery plan, I have been inundated with e-mails and calls from homeowners looking to refinance their mortgages to record low rates through the Federal Housing Administration.

The volume, along with regular appeals from readers asking me to intercede for them with lenders and servicers, are proof positive the financial crisis is far from over.

The problem is that Congress, including a Republican House majority hostile to the plan, has to approve it first, and that may not happen.

The need for congressional action is twofold.

The first reason is that the administration wants banks to be charged what Obama called "a small fee" to pay the $5 billion to $10 billion cost of refinancing millions of mortgages rather than add to the deficits that threaten the economy, as Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke told the House Budget Committee two weeks ago.

The second is that Congress must authorize the expansion of FHA capacity to refinance these mortgages, including establishing a way to insure these loans separately from the rest of the agency's portfolio to limit the risk to the more solid ones.

Two years ago, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, the administration proposed charging lenders a fee to pay the costs of modifying loans. That idea didn't pass.

In addition, despite denials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, FHA solvency remains an issue for many economists. If the situation reaches the tipping point, it would end in another multibillion-dollar taxpayer bailout.

There may be as many as 10 million U.S. borrowers who owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth. Just setting up a mechanism to handle them would take months, because existing "Home Affordable" programs don't appear to have been up to the task.

All I'm saying is, don't count on this one.

Why? After the announcement, HUD kept forwarding to me - unsolicited - testimonials from academics and others on the program's viability.

Yet, if House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) says "no way" 90 minutes before Obama even announces the program, all the favorable comments in the world won't change the outcome.

Boehner and other House Republicans have maintained from the start that these programs aren't worth the money being spent for them. In fact, Boehner maintains they have simply succeeded in delaying market recovery.

On Feb. 1, the day I heard both Obama and Boehner's sides, Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport on American Public Media's Marketplace told host Kai Ryssdal that 58 percent of the country believed the government should be making an effort to reduce foreclosures.

And yet, as Ryssdal pointed out, Americans tend to distrust big government.

That's the paradox, Newport said.

He said Republicans don't think the government should do it, but they're opposed "by independents and Democrats who say it should." Higher-income, well-educated people say, "Stay out," but they aren't in the majority.

Let's just conjecture here. Say the Republicans in the House had a change of heart about the Obama plan and decided to approve the bank fees and open up FHA to millions of responsible, yet "underwater," borrowers.

Would the lenders be more accommodating to borrowers than they have been so far?

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said homeowners simply refinance through FHA with another lender, then pay off the original mortgage early, as is their right.

The lenders have no say in the matter, he said.

We'll see.

On the House:

Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens' home improvement column appears Fridays in Home & Design. See instructional videos at Al's Place. Go to philly.com/yourplace

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com, or @alheavens on Twitter.

comments powered by Disqus