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Skepticism greets new federal plan to help homeowners

Published Feb. 4, 2012

Hoopla and headlines follow the announcement of each new federal program to help distressed homeowners, as they did last week when President Obama detailed his latest initiative.

But five years into the housing bust, results have been in short supply.

In Florida, about 100,000 homeowners have gotten some sort of assistance, which seems like a lot until compared to the number who have not been helped, including:

• 371,000 in foreclosure.

• 530,000 three or more months behind on their mortgages and headed in that direction.

• 2 million more who owe more than their homes are worth.

The bottom line?

"The (programs) were of little benefit," said Jack McCabe, a Deerfield Beach housing consultant. "It's like putting a Band-Aid on skin cancer."

University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith agreed. He said many of those who received help eventually defaulted because they couldn't afford the loans.

"The policies have been the opposite of battlefield triage," Snaith said. "The government has been helping the homeowners who could not be saved."

President Obama's latest plan addresses that complaint.

The $5 billion-plus initiative is not designed to help those in foreclosure or delinquent on their mortgages. Rather, it targets homeowners — 2 million in Florida — who are making their payments but owe more than their home is now worth.

That means they can't sell their homes and can't refinance to take advantage of historically low interest rates. Refinancing would put spendable dollars in their pockets, which might stimulate the economy.

But prospects for the plan are uncertain at best.

Snaith said this type of plan should have been proposed two years ago.

"We've missed the boat for sweeping changes," he said. "Now, Washington is in policy gridlock. I don't see much happening in an election year."

Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, understands the skepticism in Florida of the incremental results produced by the federal programs.

"You can be quickly cynical in a place like Florida that has suffered so badly," he said. "Florida is right in the middle of this."

But he points to those who have been able to keep a roof over their heads with the help.

Nearly 90,000 Floridians are making lower monthly mortgage payments because of the Making Home Affordable Program. An additional 10,709 were on trial modifications as of November.

About $1 billion in federal mortgage aid given to Florida through the Hardest Hit Fund has helped 4,487 homeowners pay their loans for six months while they find work or higher-paying jobs. Of the nearly 36,500 applications, more than 3,800 came from Hillsborough, Hernando, Pinellas and Polk counties.

The administration also recently expanded eligibility in the Home Affordable Modification Program, known as HAMP, for borrowers with higher debt loads. The program will triple the incentives the government pays to banks that reduce loan principals.

Regulators expected the earlier version to help 4 million borrowers, but fewer than 1 million have been served. About $19 billion remains in the program.

McCabe, the housing consultant, believes the new guidelines could help many Floridians, but he cautioned that it's nowhere near enough money.

"The $19 billion is just enough to help South Florida," he said. "This is a trillion-dollar problem nationally."

Information from the Palm Beach Post was used in this report. Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

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