Florida's Hardest Hit funds finding way to 'first-time homebuyers' who really aren't

Published January 15 2016
Updated January 15 2016

When Robin Robbins and her son bought a house in Plant City last fall, $15,000 of their down payment and closing costs came from a federally funded program for first-time home buyers.

But the house is not the first one Robbins has owned. Records show she has had two others. And her situation is not unique — at least five other Hillsborough County residents who previously owned homes have received up to $15,000 in help from the Florida Hardest Hit Fund Down Payment Assistance Program.

Created in 2010 after the housing crash, the $7.6 billion Hardest Hit Fund was mainly intended to help homeowners in Florida and 17 other states avoid foreclosure. Florida's foreclosure rate remains the nation's second highest. But $50 million in Hardest Hit money is now being used to help people in five counties — Hillsborough, Brevard, Orange, Duval and Volusia — buy houses.

What's more, they can get the down payment assistance even if they are not really first-time buyers. That's because the federal definition of "first-time'' is anyone who has not owned and occupied a home in the past three years.

It's enough to baffle and frustrate current homeowners like Charles Kleber of Spring Hill. He has been waiting since August for Hardest Hit help to bring his mortgage up to date so he can stay in his home of more than 30 years.

"You give the guy down the block money to buy a house and then this one has to go into foreclosure,'' says Kleber, 77. "It makes no sense."

Florida's Housing Finance Corp., which runs the state's Hardest Hit programs, says the purpose of the down payment assistance is to bolster the real estate market in areas slammed by the foreclosure crisis.

When the Hardest Hit Fund started, "the focus needed to be on homeowners in some type of mortgage distress,'' said spokesperson Cecka Green.

Now that the market has picked up, she said, helping people buy homes will "strengthen demand in (hard-hit) areas, stabilize housing prices and prevent future foreclosures.''

It is true that the housing market generally has improved. But many Florida homeowners are still struggling. After five years, only 24,000 of the 116,000 who applied for Hardest Hit help have received it. Almost half of the state's $1 billion remains unspent. And any money not used by December 2017 — less than two years away — must be returned to the U.S. Treasury Department.

The federal official who oversees Treasury's management of the Hardest Hit Fund says Florida should put more effort into helping people stay in homes they already have.

"States, particularly Florida, have not done a good job of getting this money out to homeowners and rather than do a better job on existing programs ... they create other programs to spend on someone else,'' said Christy Romero, special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. (TARP is the federal bailout program.)

In July, the state housing agency began the down payment assistance in Hillsborough and the other four counties. Compared to the sluggish rate at which Florida has helped existing homeowners, the first-time buyers program has moved with surprising speed. So far, 758 people have received help with down payments and closing costs.

Among Hillsborough 174 "first-time'' buyers:

• A 43-year-old woman who received $15,000 in assistance in October on a four-bedroom, three-bathroom home in Brandon. In 2010, a year after declaring bankruptcy, she and her ex-husband lost another home in Brandon to foreclosure.

• A 59-year-old woman who received $7,500 toward the down payment and closing costs on a house in Tampa in August. In 2012, a bank foreclosed on a home she and her late husband owned in Seffner.

• A 29-year-old woman who received $15,000 in assistance in September for a house near Busch Gardens. She lost her first house to foreclosure in 2008, just a year after buying it.

Records show that Robbins, the Plant City woman, had two previous homes. One was a condo that she quit claimed in 2009 to a community association that sued her for unpaid dues. The other was a house in Tampa that she and her ex-husband lost to foreclosure.

In September, she and her son, Ian, received $15,000 in assistance on a newly built four-bedroom house in Brandon costing $205,490.

Robin Robbins, who has had three bankruptcies, "couldn't qualify on her own for anything other than a small house so we decided to combine our incomes and get a nice place,'' said her son, a security guard. He said they disclosed the previous homes but were told by their Realtor and loan originator that they qualified as "first-time'' buyers because Robbins hadn't owned and occupied a home within the past three years.

If a goal of the down payment program is to "prevent future foreclosures,'' as Green said, does it make sense to help people with histories of foreclosure and bankruptcy buy homes? Green did not answer directly but noted that the assistance is contingent on a lender deeming a person "mortgage worthy.''

The Treasury Department has given Florida and other states considerable latitude in devising ways to use their Hardest Hit money. But Romero, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, said states must be able to show that down payment programs really do reduce foreclosure rates.

"If they say they can help prevent future foreclosures by increasing and stabilizing housing prices, they have to set some performance standards to measure that,'' she said.

Romero's greatest concern, though, is that Florida still is not moving fast enough with those programs that do help current homeowners.

"Why can't anybody get in? Why is it taking so long?'' she asked. "Maybe the requirements and paperwork are so tight that the money is not getting into the hands of where it needs to go. You've got to change immediately, but I'm not confident that's going to happen.''

Nor is Kleber, the Spring Hill homeowner who has been trying to get Hardest Hit help for months to bring his delinquent mortgage current.

"I've gone through every hoop, every scenario that they could possibly come up with asking me for this information, that information all over again,'' he said. "It's just a big runaround."

A retired database manager, Kleber said he thought he "had it made'' until his wife died and he lost most of his saving in the 2008 stock market crash. Without his wife's Social Security income, he fell behind on the mortgage payments.

"I've tried to keep it going,'' said Kleber, who drives school buses part-time, "and my daughter said she'll help as much as she can. We are managing to keep the lights on and the taxes paid.''

Kleber said a housing counselor recently told him he might be eligible for a loan modification. But it irks him that people who have already lost a home to foreclosure are getting up to $15,000 in Hardest Hit assistance to buy another one when he needs just a few thousand dollars to stay in his house of three decades.

"It's not as if I was asking for $100,000 or $50,000. All I want is to pay the arrears (to the bank) so I can get them off my back.''

Times researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate

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