Monday, May 28, 2012

Phoenix-area homeowners getting relief through federal plan

After more than $500 million in federal allotments to Arizona to try to slow foreclosures, the latest federal housing-assistance program seems to be the first one to provide widespread help.

A growing number of metro Phoenix homeowners who owe more than their homes are worth are lowering their interest rates and monthly payments with the federal government's second version of its Home Affordable Refinancing Plan.

Facts on programs

While the federal government has yet to release figures on the number of homeowners in the program, mortgage brokers, homeowners and housing counselors are both surprised and encouraged by its early success.

The program allows homeowners with loans held by the federal government's biggest mortgage entities to refinance to current interest rates without meeting the typical appraisal requirement. These borrowers often had been stymied in past attempts to refinance because their homes were no longer worth enough to cover the value of a new loan.

When the program was announced in October, Cathy Lucero of Glendale was ready to apply. She called a mortgage broker, and he told her to get her credit report and mortgage paperwork in order and call him back in February when more details of the plan were to be released.

"We are seriously underwater with our home," said Lucero, who works for Maricopa County. "But we have never missed a payment. It seems right to help the homeowners who are trying to do the right thing."

Her HARP refinance was approved earlier this month. The interest rate on Lucero's loan will drop to 4.5 percent from 6.5 percent, and she will save almost $350 a month on her payment -- about $4,200 a year she can instead put toward other bills.

The goal of the expanded refinancing plan is to help homeowners save money and fend off foreclosures by lowering payments.

A raft of programs with similar goals have found moderate success at best in Arizona since the housing crash: federal funds to speed the process of modifying loans, assist homeowners struggling to make their payments, and help cities and local groups deal with swaths of abandoned houses.

Many of those programs haven't been able to quickly spend the funds allotted to them, either because the federal government was slow to approve them, the qualifications were too stringent for homeowners, or because banks were reluctant to cooperate.

The latest refinance program, brokers and borrowers say, seems to be the best yet.

"We ran into a few problems when the new HARP was launched in March and were concerned the program was going to be another disappointment," said Jay Luber, president of Phoenix-based Galaxy Lending. "But now we are seeing homeowners approved every day."

Home-refinance program

The original HARP program, which began in summer 2009, allowed homeowners to refinance, but only if the new loan needed was no more than 125 percent of the home's value. This so-called loan-to-value ratio meant the program didn't help many in metro Phoenix, where a home bought during the boom might have a loan balance twice as big as the home's current value because home prices have plunged so far from the 2006 peak.

The new refinancing program has no loan-to-value limit.

Luber said he recently helped a homeowner whose loan-to-value ratio is 170 percent refinance under the federal plan.

To be eligible, homeowners must have mortgages backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. The two government agencies own more than half of the loans in Arizona.

Freddie Mac has been slow to implement HARP 2, say mortgage brokers. One Phoenix homeowner with a mortgage backed by Freddie was even told by her lender that she was ineligible because only Fannie was participating in the revamped refinancing plan.

But Freddie Mac is now approving HARP 2 loans in metro Phoenix.

Eligible homeowners can have missed only one payment or been late on one payment in the past year and must still bring in enough monthly income to afford their lower payment. Most borrowers are being required to show proof of income to qualify, a provision that wasn't in early drafts of the plan.

Also, early versions of HARP 2 called for using automated appraisals for all applications, but some metro Phoenix applicants are being required to pay for appraisals because the federal mortgage backers have asked for them.

"On a few HARP 2 applications, the lender has required the borrower to get an appraisal," said Mike Metz of Sun State Home Loans. "That typically costs the homeowner $400, but so far we have only seen appraisals required for homes in communities on the edge of the Valley like Queen Creek."

He said the expanded refinancing plan is helping most homeowners who apply.

"About 80 percent of our applications for homeowners trying to refinance with HARP 2 have been approved," Metz said.

Frustrations remain

As with all the government housing plans, the big lenders continue to frustrate some homeowners.

Rob Myers, a Phoenix public-relations executive, contacted a lender in February about HARP 2. He was told to gather all of his paperwork and call back in mid-March when the program was scheduled to launch.

Myers called back and was told he couldn't refinance because he had a second mortgage. So, "frustrated beyond belief," Myers contacted several other lenders who turned him down because they didn't want to work with the bank servicing his loan or were still using old HARP guideline.

"I had researched the program and believed we would qualify," Myers said. "We owe $274,000 on our house, and I have been told it's valued at $210,000. I have never missed a payment or made a late one in the 81/2 years we have been in the home."

On April 5, after many calls and efforts to refinance with another lender, Myers accepted an offer from Bank of America for a loan with a 5.1 percent interest rate. His current rate is 6 percent.

"It looks like we will be saving about $270 a month, he said. "That's not great, but at least it's something."

Not all lenders are offering the same deals. Some homeowners are working with mortgage brokers to shop around for lower interest rates. Under the federal program, borrowers who qualify can seek a new loan from any participating lender, not just the one that currently holds their loan.

Other programs

Since 2008, Arizona has been allotted more than half a billion dollars in federal funds to help homeowners and slow foreclosures.

But municipalities, the Arizona Housing Department and housing non-profits have found it difficult to actually spend the money because of tough federal guidelines; too-stringent qualifications for many homeowners; and the requirement in most of the plans that lenders cooperate. Less than half of the state's federal housing funds have been used to help homeowners, and deadlines are looming for some of the money to be spent.

The Neighborhood Stabilization Program was the first federal program to help states fight foreclosures. Much of the money in Arizona was originally going to be used to help homeowners buy foreclosure homes and fix them up. But when the federal money became available in mid-2009, investors had begun buying inexpensive foreclosure homes and turning them into rentals, outbidding many potential homeowners who had sought NSP help.

Regular buyers trying to use NSP funds had trouble competing with the investors.

"We had to jump through a lot of hoops to buy this home, but Phoenix has a great NSP program," said Jim Hansen. He and his wife, Rosalva, are buying a three-bedroom former foreclosure home in west Phoenix for less than $78,000. The home originally cost $92,000, but NSP provided $15,000 for the couple's down payment and funded a renovation of the house that includes a new air-conditioner and appliances.

The couple became the 300th homebuyer for Phoenix's NSP program, which started three years ago. Housing advocates say the program had a slow start but is helping first-time buyers like the Hansens and neighborhoods with too many empty foreclosure homes.

Recipients of the federal funds in Arizona, including the cities of Avondale, Mesa and Phoenix, tried to revamp their plans and spend the money in other ways to help neighborhoods, including renovating run-down apartments for low-income residents. But all plans had to be approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and city officials said that became an arduous process.

"Municipalities tried to customize their programs, but it was slow," said Patricia Garcia Duarte, CEO of the housing non-profit Neighborhood Housing Services of Phoenix. "The many variations on the program created confusion. But overall, the funds weren't available to do what the program really intended to do."

The federal Home Affordable Modification Program was announced by President Barack Obama during a February 2009 speech in Mesa. Many metro Phoenix residents were hopeful they would be able to lower their payments and keep their homes through the program called HAMP. The goal was to push lenders to simply alter the terms of mortgages -- reducing payments, changing interest rates or forgiving principal.

But lenders took several months to implement the program, and homeowners trying to hold on waited months before receiving responses from their lenders. Paperwork was lost. Homeowners were granted "trial modifications," then foreclosed on. And most of those trials were not made permanent.

Few of the loan modifications included principal reductions, yet lenders have made the program costly for the federal government.

The federal government responded to the problems with HAMP by creating the Hardest Hit Housing fund with unused money from the federal banking bailout in early 2010. Arizona was one of five states to receive the funding.

The Arizona Housing Department spent months working on a plan that would help struggling homeowners who had not been helped by a loan modification. The main component of the state's plan called for enticing lenders to reduce principal by offering matching funds.

A homeowner could see his outstanding loan balance cut by $100,000, with $50,000 from the housing agency and the other $50,000 forgiven by the lender.

Housing advocates and homeowners were optimistic. The applications for the program poured in. But the approval process was tough, and few lenders seemed willing to cooperate -- housing officials could offer the money as an enticement but couldn't force banks to go along. So far, only a handful of homeowners have had principal forgiven.

"The Treasury Department called the Hardest Hit program an innovation fund," said Mike Trailor, director of the state's Housing Department. "But what I have found is you can't innovate the lending industry when it won't work with you."

He said the state agency has had better luck with its unemployment/underemployment program that helps homeowners pay their mortgages for up to two years. The state has until 2017 to use the remaining funds, more than $200 million.

Now, the Housing Department is looking at ways it can expand on the HARP 2 program and use its Hardest Hit money to help arrange refinancing for people who don't have loans owned by Fannie or Freddie.

Arizona isn't alone in having problems spending these federal funds.

Nationally, a report from the inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, TARP, released a report showing that less than 5 percent of the Hardest Hit funds have been spent.

What's next

Metro Phoenix's home prices have begun to climb again, and foreclosures are half of what they were two years ago.

Now, it might be too late to help many homeowners. Experts think foreclosures are on the decline because most homeowners who were going to lose their houses already have, and rising prices indicate a recovering market.

Much of the federal funds set aside to slow foreclosures and help the housing market recover faster could go unspent.

"I have told Congress HARP 2 would have helped a lot more people and the housing market two years ago," said Anthony Sanders, a professor of real-estate finance with George Mason University. He was previously with Arizona State University.

"The federal housing programs were poorly designed and didn't help the people who needed it," he said. "We will still have to see if it's not too late for HARP 2."

by Catherine Reagor - May. 26, 2012 10:36 PM The Republic |

Phoenix-area homeowners getting relief through federal plan

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