After four years of dismal results, the Florida Housing Finance Corp. appears to finally be serious about helping struggling but conscientious homeowners stay in their homes under the federal Hardest Hit Fund. The application period for a principal reduction program reopened last week for low- and moderate-income homeowners who have stayed current on their mortgage but owe at least 125 percent more than their home is worth. But now the state agency should justify why it is continuing to commit $50 million to another, privatized mortgage aid program for delinquent borrowers that has helped just nine homeowners. That is no way to serve Floridians or help the state's real estate market.
The Florida housing agency announced last week it would resume accepting applications for its $350 million Hardest Hit Fund Principal Reduction Program after last fall's botched application process cut off applications at 25,000. Exactly what happened to all those applications is unclear. Roughly 2,400 homeowners have received principal loan reductions worth up to $50,000, costing the fund $102 million. Another 6,000 didn't qualify, perhaps because their income exceeded the program's requirements of 140 percent of median income for the area — $80,360 for Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties. Now the agency said it will accept new applications, hopefully soon releasing another $248 million to pay down principals. Homeowners do not have to pay back the money if they remain in good standing on their mortgage for another five years.
The $350 million is part of the $1 billion Florida collected in 2010 after the Treasury Department set aside $7.6 billion for 18 states hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis. But for more than a year, reporting by Tampa Bay Times senior correspondent Susan Martin has suggested an agency out of its depth and incompetent in actually getting money to Floridians.
A pilot project aimed at helping delinquent borrowers become current on their loans took too long; Gov. Rick Scott initially restricted efforts to publicize how homeowners could get help; and most condominium owners were initially and arbitrarily blocked from qualifying for aid. Now there are new questions about why the agency continues to commit $50 million to an out-of-state nonprofit investment firm that underperformed on its promises. That firm also has a closed application process and uses a Clearwater agency run by a convicted swindler as an application processor for its Florida deals, in apparent violation of federal policy.
The "Modification Enabling Pilot Project" run by National Community Capital of New Jersey is open just to homeowners so delinquent in their payments that their mortgages had been sold at federal distressed asset auctions in 2012 and 2013. Most Florida homeowners — including those who have been diligently paying their mortgages — were not eligible for this virtually unknown program.
Yet even as the nonprofit found it didn't have enough eligible mortgages to spend the $50 million, the housing agency has granted it even more latitude to subsidize delinquent loans held by for-profit real estate speculators. That is unacceptable. The state should not be choosing to subsidize speculators of delinquent loans rather than helping struggling Floridians who are still making their payments on underwater homes. Scott should direct the housing agency to cancel the private deal and reallocate unused money fairly to give more Florida homeowners a chance to get some help.