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For Mortgage Help, Government Wants Public Shame

The Obama administration wants to shame the mortgage industry into doing a better job of helping borrowers avoid losing their homes to foreclosure.

Mortgage Problems
Mortgage Problems

By publishing the names of companies that are lagging behind in the government's plan to ease the housing crisis, officials are counting on public outrage to get the industry on track. The Treasury Department on Tuesday plans to report on the progress of loan servicers — companies that collect mortgage payments — that are in line for up to $50 billion in subsidies.

"We want to go faster," said Michael Barr, the Treasury Department's assistant secretary for financial institutions. "There are a bunch of servicers that are lacking in performance. They have to lift their game."

When the plan was launched in March, the government said it hoped to help up to 4 million financially distressed homeowners modify their mortgages to lower their payments.

As of last week, just 200,000 homeowners were on track to get a modification, and the government has extracted a verbal promise to reach 500,000 borrowers by Nov. 1.

Meanwhile, foreclosures are continuing to rise. RealtyTrac says 1.5 million American households received at least one foreclosure-related notice in the first six months of this year.

"We're losing houses rather than making modifications," said Bruce Dorpalen, director of housing counseling at Acorn Housing Corp., a nonprofit housing group based in Philadelphia. "The foreclosure train has not stopped."

The 31 participating companies include such large players as Bank of America , Citibank , JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. They have received billions in federal bailout money and are sensitive about their public image.

But there also are many independent companies involved. Most are secretive about their operations and may be less sensitive to bad publicity.

For much of the industry, "there's no market value to having a good brand," said Julia Gordon, senior policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, a consumer group.

Housing advocates say the plan has been a big disappointment so far. They cite numerous cases in which companies haven't followed the program's rules. When borrowers are denied, they often don't get told why, leading to testy battles between mortgage companies, housing counselors and borrowers.

Violet McCurchin, 45, who owns a duplex in Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Canarsie neighborhood, wants to participate in the Obama plan. She says she's behind on her mortgage due to her tenant's missed rent and a lack of child support payments.

Her mortgage company, Carrington Mortgage Services LLC, sent her a letter last month saying she did not qualify for the Obama program, but didn't provide any reason. The company offered to lower her monthly payment from about $3,400 to about $2,500, which she declined. According to her housing counselor, she should get a monthly payment of about $2,250 under the Obama plan.

"If I don't qualify, provide me with a written explanation," McCurchin said.

A Carrington spokesman said the company's couldn't offer McCurchin the Obama plan because of restrictions in the contract that governs her loan.

In response to complaints about such cases, the Treasury Department says Freddie Mac will be doing random audits to see if borrowers are being improperly denied.

The lending industry is asking for patience, saying the industry needed time to get going. The administration rolled out the program's guidelines gradually this year. Much of the program was not finished until mid-May, and the guidelines were updated again in early July.

Plus, thousands of employees needed to be hired or retrained to deal with a flood of inquiries, many of which are from borrowers who aren't eligible or are calling just to ask questions.

Sanjiv Das, chief executive of Citigroup'sCitiMortgage unit, said his company has hired or retrained about 1,400 new workers — including an 800-person call-center in Tuscon, Ariz. — to work on loan modifications.

"I absolutely believe that we as an industry can (achieve Obama's target) at a relatively quick pace," Das said.

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