President Barack Obama today fleshed out a proposal he announced in his State of the Union speech last week to help boost the housing market by helping more underwater home owners than are being served now by lenders.
In the details he released today, the President said he wants to make the federal government’s existing mortgage refinance program, called HARP (Home Affordable Refinance Program) available to more home owners. It’s currently available to struggling borrowers with loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. For these borrowers, incentives are provided under certain conditions to make refinancing more attractive.
Under the new proposal, this HARP program would be expanded to include borrowers with loans that aren’t backed by Fannie and Freddie. These are the borrowers whose loans were securitized in private-label securities without any federal backing, and they would be allowed to refinance into FHA-backed loans, the same as the Fannie and Freddie borrowers. The administration has estimated that borrowers would save $3,000 a year in mortgage costs.
Key points: 1) More underwater home owners would be able to tap federal refinance assistance than can do so today, 2) mortgage servicers would be restricted in their ability to foreclose until after they’ve exhausted efforts for borrowers who’ve make a good-faith effort to modify their mortgage, and 3) efforts to reduce the inventory of foreclosed homes through bulk sales to investors for use as rental housing would be tried in a pilot program.
To be eligible, borrowers would have to have made their mortgage payments over the last six months with only one delinquency, and their loan amount couldn’t exceed the FHA loan limit for their area. If borrowers owe more than 140 percent of the value of their home, the lender has to agree to reduce the loan balance. Also, borrowers wouldn’t have to submit a full file of paperwork for the refinancing as long as they can verify their employment. The proposal also would enable borrowers who still have equity in their home—up to 20 percent—to participate.
The changes will require legislation, so Congress will have to agree to them for the expanded program to take effect.
In his State of the Union speech last week, Obama said he would pay for the expanded program using a fee charged to the country’s largest banks so the initiative wouldn’t add to the deficit. But some members of Congress have said they oppose charging banks a fee to cover the cost.
The Obama plan would also introduce a Bill of Rights for home owners, part of which is intended to smooth the mortgage modification and foreclosure processes, which today can be contentious and difficult for borrowers to understand. A key part of this is an effort to curb banks’ practice of undertaking a mortgage modification while at the same time proceeding with a foreclosure—a process called dual tracking. Before they can start foreclosure, banks will have to show they took all reasonable steps to modify a borrower’s mortgage.
To help ease inventories of foreclosed homes, the plan would give a green light to Fannie Mae to implement a pilot program to make foreclosures available to investors in bulk purchases for conversion to rental housing. Under the pilot, Fannie would package for sale foreclosed homes in a limited number of markets and require them to be used as rental properties for a period of time.
NAR has concerns with this proposal and has been talking with federal regulators to ensure that the program is carefully tailored to the communities who can truly benefit from it, that small- and medium-sized investors be able to participate, and that real estate professionals continue to play a role in the disposition of the homes.
In a statement released after the President outlined the details of his proposal, NAR said it’s urging the regulator of Fannie and Freddie, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, “to proceed cautiously with the REO-to-rental program since housing markets are complex and varied.
“NAR believes an overly aggressive REO-to-rental program that is not privately administered by local entities and does not involve substantial participation of local market experts, especially licensed real estate professionals, could be disruptive and counterproductive to communities already suffering from high foreclosure inventories and lower housing values.”