Senate Leaders Agree on Aid for Homeowners


Senate leaders Wednesday crafted a compromise bill to offer billions of dollars in refinancing and other help to homeowners and communities hit by the crisis in the housing markets.

The accord was reached only after a controversial measure on bankruptcy law was dropped from the Democrats' version of the bill.

J. Scott Applewhite

That measure sought to let judges alter mortgage terms for some troubled borrowers in bankruptcy proceedings.

"We could not reach an agreement on that," Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd, chairman of the banking committee and a key negotiator on the bill, told reporters.

Democrats were not ready to concede defeat on the bankruptcy measure, but it was unclear if they could muster the votes to amend it to the overall bill, Senate aides said.

Without the bankruptcy provision "this bill amounts to dancing around a fire when Congress is supposed to be putting it out," said Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of human rights groups.

Estimated to cost from $15 billion to $20 billion, the bipartisan Senate bill still faces days of debate.

If approved, it would have to go to the House.

As drafted now, the Senate bill would give the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) a bigger role in the mortgage market and offer tax measures to stimulate housing.

"We're still working on a lot of the particulars, but we plan to go to the floor tomorrow," said Alabama Sen.

Richard Shelby, senior Republican on the banking committee and a lead negotiator with Dodd on the bill.

Congress Under Pressure

With a possible recession looming, Congress is under pressure to help homeowners hit by rising foreclosures and falling home prices.

Demands for action on behalf of homeowners have grown since the Federal Reserve last month engineered a massive bailout of investment bank Bear Stearns, which was hammered by bad subprime mortgage bets.

"We helped Wall Street ... But now is our opportunity to take care of people on Main Street," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

The Senate bill attempts to ease the impact on communities of foreclosed homes by offering a $7,000 tax credit spread over two years to buyers of homes in or near foreclosure.

To help people get out from under bad subprime loans, the bill calls for issuance of $10 billion more in tax-free revenue bonds to help troubled borrowers refinance their mortgages.

For companies hit by the housing slump, the bill extends a tax break to let companies credit losses from the past two years against taxes paid over prior profitable years.

For 2008 and 2009, the net operating loss carry-back tax rule would extend to four years from the present two years.

The Laborers' International Union of North America criticized the carry-back measure, labeling it a "handout for corporate home builders who helped cause the housing crash." Another piece of the bill would give all U.S. home owners who pay property taxes a standard deduction of $500 for single filers and $1,000 for joint filers.

At present, only taxpayers who itemize may deduct state and local property taxes.

Beefing Up FHA

The bill seeks to expand the role of the FHA, a government agency that insures mortgages, by raising the limit on the size of mortgages it can back.

The FHA loan limit would rise to 110 percent of an area's median home price, with a cap of $550,000 and a 3-1/2 percent downpayment required from the borrower, under the bill.

An economic stimulus package earlier this year temporarily raised the FHA loan limit to $729,500 from about $362,000 for the rest of 2008.

The Senate's limit would be permanent.

Dodd said he would hold committee hearings, possibly starting this month, on another, more ambitious FHA plan.

He and Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank have proposed permitting the FHA to offer hundreds of billions of dollars in new guarantees to help refinance distressed mortgages that banks and mortgage holders agree to significantly write down.

In another provision of the Senate bill, $4 billion in federal grant money would go to communities to buy and fix up or redevelop homes that have been foreclosed upon and are sitting vacant, dragging down home values in a neighborhood.

To help families avoid foreclosure, the bill would devote $100 million in federal money to debt counseling; require lenders to give special treatment on mortgage matters to military veterans returning from service; and require more timely and more clearly worded mortgage paperwork.

The Bush administration called the bill "a first step." White House spokesman Tony Fratto said, "We have serious concerns about some of the elements ...like the funding to purchase foreclosed properties and the tax credit provision." The House in mid-November adopted a bill aimed at cracking down on mortgage brokers to prevent some of the abuses that helped inflate the home price bubble that is now deflating.

The White House last month voiced support for some of the proposals in the House bill.

The administration has also asked for voluntary support from banks to help distressed mortgage borrowers work out their debts.