TALLAHASSEE — A $1 billion program aimed at helping homeowners avoid foreclosure kicked off Monday, though it is less ambitious than originally proposed.
The Florida Housing Corp. began taking applications Monday morning at FLHardestHitHelp.org for the federally funded program that will provide nearly 40,000 unemployed and underemployed homeowners with up to six months of cash assistance to make payments on mortgages that would otherwise go unpaid.
Created by the U.S. Treasury in February 2010, the Housing Finance Agency Innovation Fund for the hardest-hit housing markets sets aside funds from the 2008 federal stimulus package to five states: Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan and Nevada, states with the highest levels of foreclosures. The program was later expanded to 18 states. Florida's cut to date is $1 billion of nearly $9 billion in federal funds.
Florida is the last state of five original recipients to get its program under way. The program was rolled out last year in Lee County as a pilot. The region was the epicenter of a housing bust resulting in thousands of foreclosures.
"For the homeowners who qualify, this temporary relief from their mortgage payments will provide some 'breathing room' so they can focus on becoming re-employed at a level that will allow them to resume making payments on their own," said Steve Auger, executive director of Florida Housing Finance Corp.
Florida's original program would have provided as much as $35,000 in assistance over an 18 month period for homeowners who were looking for work and behind on their mortgages. After taking office, however, Gov. Rick Scott ordered a review of the program and changed its parameters.
The new program reduced the maximum award up to $12,000 and shortens the duration of benefits, which advocates said could reduce the program's effectiveness for recipients whose job search takes longer to complete, as Florida's economy recovers more slowly than other states.
The program also offers up to $6,000 for residents who have gone back to work to pay delinquent mortgage payments.
"Shortening it to six months is going to create more of a challenge," said Jaimie Ross, president of the Florida Housing Coalition. But, she said, "the coalition is going to do everything it can to make the program a success."
About 70 agencies are assisting in outreach efforts including local SHIP offices, non-profit groups and for-profit companies.