April 7, 2020

Emergency Homeowners Aid Ending With Up to $500 Million Unspent

But the program is now ending after achieving lackluster results and stirring widespread recrimination.

Fewer than 15,000 households are expected to receive help despite enormous demand, and perhaps half of the money will go unspent.

The department attributed the program’s performance to the way it was set up by Congress. But Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, an author of the legislation, said the program’s failings were a result of poor administration and the department’s late start in rolling it out.

“They dragged and dragged their feet,” Mr. Frank said in an interview. “I believe it was not one of their priorities.”

The program, called the Emergency Homeowners’ Loan Program, or EHLP, was signed into law in July 2010 as part of the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. It offered people who were unemployed or underemployed up to $50,000 in zero-interest loans to pay their mortgage debts. HUD has until Friday to mete out the funds or lose the balance.

Yet the department did not begin the program until this June, and set an original application cutoff date of late July. Across the country, nonprofit housing groups and mortgage counselors who had been chosen to work with applicants rushed to meet the deadline, which ended up being extended several times.

The counselors also found the eligibility criteria complicated and overly restrictive.

Under the stipulations, applicants had to be at least 90 days behind on their mortgage payments. They also had to be earning at least 15 percent less than their 2009 income due to unemployment, underemployment or serious illness. The program subsidized mortgage payments for up to two years. But if the cost of the subsidies and the repayment of a homeowner’s mortgage debt exceeded $50,000, the applicant would be ineligible.

The combination of these rules, housing counselors said, disqualified a large number of people who had gone through their savings and fallen behind on mortgage payments. Nor have all of the applicants who met the qualifications been approved for the loan.

And with the Friday deadline, the clock is ticking.

At the Twin Cities Community Development Corporation of Fitchburg and Leominster, Mass., 31 of the 250 applicants who sought help met the program’s requirements, and by Wednesday, six had been approved.

The National Community Reinvestment Coalition, in Washington, took applications from 506 people. Of those, 49 met the eligibility guidelines, and 26 had been approved as of Wednesday.

Operation Hope, a nonprofit based in California, fielded queries from 1,200 people seeking help; of those, 25 were found to be qualified, and by Wednesday, five had been approved.

“It’s been a very discouraging process,” said Laurel Miller, director of homeownership at the Twin Cities agency. “It was almost like in order to qualify for this, it had to be the perfect storm.”

In states where housing costs are high, like New York, bitterness about the program was compounded by the fact that many homeowners were deeper in arrears than the program allowed. Of the 1,000 people who sought help through the nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services of New York City, only 74 qualified.

“It’s been a frustrating program,” said Bernell K. Grier, chief executive of the organization. “We wish we could have done more.”

HUD officials cited many reasons for the program’s slow rollout, saying the agency had to build the infrastructure to do direct lending, hire organizations to put the program into effect and create regulations for its operation.

Housing officials also said that nearly all of the eligibility guidelines came from a 1975 act through which the new money had been appropriated, and that they had interpreted the guidelines accordingly, leading to restrictions like the one involving the 15 percent income drop.

“No one could have anticipated how difficult the statutory requirements would make it to qualify homeowners, causing us to overestimate the number of people who could meet the eligibility criteria,” said Todd M. Richardson, director of the emergency loan program.

Yet Representative Frank said he never heard the agency complain about the statue guidelines’ being overly stringent. “They’re just trying to cover up their embarrassment,” he said.

John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, which also processed applications, said the agency could have been nimbler, modeling its program on an existing one rather than creating its own and eliminating stringent requirements, when it became clear that hundreds of millions of dollars would not be spent.

Housing counselors had also been pushing to secure money for people who met the program’s qualifications yet might not be approved by Friday. Last week, Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, introduced a bill to extend the deadline, but it was not voted on.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=650ac1d5c188cb8681de56cd04115ea9

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