Victims of the foreclosure crisis and underwater homeowners alike will be pleased to know that the federal government is extending the mandate for the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) through 2013, and will also expand its role as the government continues to combat the housing crisis.
HAMP, originally created in 2009, was designed to help American homeowners avoid foreclosure by working with lenders to modify their mortgages. The theory behind the program was that homeowners could keep their properties – and stop foreclosure from creating more destructive home foreclosures in already-depressed markets – with lower, more-affordable monthly mortgage payments and principal reductions.
But, the $29 billion program has not been without its critics, who allege the program has been too limited, too underfunded, and too ineffective in preventing foreclosure properties from flooding the market.
Largely because of these criticisms, the Obama administration is seeking to fix these and other problems by offering additional financial incentives to lenders for principal reductions. This means thousands of American homeowners could see their monthly payments drop by having lower principal balances. Such a move could have a stimulating effect on the economy, especially since the administration will also offer financial incentives to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for modifications. Since the two programs account for the vast majority of mortgages currently owned, the impact could be significant.
Whatever the future impact, the past performance of HAMP has been less than desired. Out of roughly 1.7 million program applicants, only about 900,000 have had their mortgages permanently modified – and a significant percentage of those have fallen through since.
Some of this failure has been blamed on the nation’s largest lenders, including JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America. Others point the finger at the mass of red tape and bureaucracy that has plagued the program’s administration.
Whatever the cause of the problem may be, the nation’s foreclosure rate – hovering around 3.51% as of October 2011 – is still far too high for a healthy housing market. Serious gains have yet to be made in removing foreclosure listings and having homeowners fill vacancies, primarily due to reluctance by big banks to lend to most prospective homebuyers. Loosening a still-tight credit market is one priority, as is an Obama initiative to sell blocks of distressed properties to private investors for rehabilitation and transformation into rental units.
At any rate, the besieged program has another year to perform before Washington becomes serious about pulling the plug.