Housing Aid to Focus on Jobless, Underwater Loans

The Obama administration plans to implement new measures to slow the pace of home foreclosures, even as concern grows about the effectiveness of the federal government’s expensive intervention program.

Foreclosure Sign
Getty Images
Foreclosure Sign

CNBC.com has learned that the White House on Friday will announce changes to its Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) that will include financial aid for unemployed homeowners, a new emphasis on writing down the principal of troubled loans, incentives for the holders of second mortgages and greater opportunity to refinance under the Federal Housing Administration.

Once again, funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, TARP, will be used to help borrowers and lenders in the program. It’s unclear how much, although some $50 billion in TARP funds were previously committed to the $85-billion program when first outlined by the White House early last year.

Treasury officials will outline the changes — a summary of which was described to CNBC.com —on Friday morning.

Mortgage analyst Howard Glaser emphasized the importance of targeting the jobless and borrowers whose homes are worth less than they owe—so-called "underwater" mortgages—and said the administration's new efforts would help stabilize the housing market.

"They have recognized that the complexion of the mortgage crisis has changed. This is no longer about risky subprime loans—its about home value declines that have made default a rational economic choice for homeowners," Glaser said in a note to clients.

The new measures come one day after administration officials received a tough grilling at a hearing of the House Oversight Committee. In addition, a report earlier this week by the General Accountability Office’s Special Inspector General for TARP, Sigtarp Neil Barofsky, questioned the near year-old program’s effectiveness.

Barofsky, who testified at the Congressional hearing, said not only is the HAMP unlikely to help many homeowners, it would also prolong the foreclosure crisis and cost taxpayers a lot of money.

The program, which was launched with the expectation of averting 3-4 million foreclosures over four years, has fallen well short of that goal.

Thus far, according to the Treasury Department, some 1.4 million borrowers have received a modification offer, with 1.1 million of them entering into a trial modification. As of February, 822,000 had been in the program three or more months, making them eligible for conversion to a permanent status. About one-third have qualified, which is well below what’s considered an acceptable success rate.

Herbert Allison, assistant Treasury secretary for financial stability, admitted as much to the House panel, saying “the process of converting trial modifications to permanent has been much more challenging than officials originally anticipated.”

He cited a variety of reasons, including difficulties with both servicers and borrowers, as well as the program itself, which was “more complex administratively than originally conceived.” (Click here for Allison's full testimony)

The changes to be announced tomorrow don’t appear aimed at reducing complexity, but they do address the changing dynamic of the foreclosure crisis.

With the jobless rate still near 10 percent, more people are falling behind on payments and heading into delinquency, unlike the earlier stage of the crisis when many foreclosures were the result of bad lending in the subprime mortgage market.

A new measure would attack that problem by giving unemployed homeowners three months of forbearance, essentially buying time.

A write-down in the principal of the loan, as opposed to a simple reduction in the mortgage rate, will now be given serious consideration; loan servicers will receive additional incentives the longer the loan stays current.

More incentives will also be provided to second-mortgage holders to write down the value of those loans.

The FHA will be utilized to refinance mortgages otherwise ineligible in the past and consider lower FICO scores.

—Reuters contributed to this report.