Panel Is Critical of Obama Mortgage Modification Plan, by David Streitfeld, Nytimes.com


The Treasury Department’s loan modification program, which has been criticized as ineffective almost since its inception, came in for another battering in a Congressional report released Tuesday.

Only about 750,000 households will be helped by the Home Affordable Modification Program, which pays banks to modify loans under Treasury guidelines. That is far fewer than the three million or four million modifications promised in early 2009 by the Obama administration, the Congressional Oversight Panel said.

The panel’s report calls the program a failure, although Senator Ted Kaufman, a Democrat from Delaware and chairman of the panel, declined to go that far in a conference call with reporters.

“The program has turned out to be a lot smaller and had a lot less impact on the housing market than we thought,” Mr. Kaufman said.

One reason: the loan servicers, who act as middlemen between the distressed homeowners and the investors who own the mortgage, often find it more profitable to foreclose than modify. The modification program provides incentives for servicers to participate in the program but no penalties for their failure to do so.

The oversight report estimated that the modification program would spend only about $4 billion of the $30 billion approved for it. With the deadline for reallocating the money having passed, “an untold number of borrowers may go without help,” the panel said.

Tim Massad, acting assistant secretary for financial stability, said at his own press briefing that the criticism was “somewhat unfair.”

Aside from the borrowers directly helped by the modification program, Mr. Massad said, many others have been helped indirectly, as servicers used the government standards in proprietary modifications.

The program “is having a real impact on the ground, even though I certainly acknowledge there are a lot of challenges and a lot of difficulties,” he said.

One of the challenges is a persistently weak housing market. Many households that have won permanent modifications are still heavily in debt, which leaves them vulnerable to redefaulting.

If the redefault level rises significantly, Mr. Kaufman said, “that’s a lot of taxpayer money down the drain with no effect.”

Other members of the oversight panel include Damon Silvers, director of policy and special counsel to the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and Richard H. Neiman, New York superintendent of banks.

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