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Earlier this month, a judge approved a settlement between five major banks and nearly all of the state attorneys general. The banks admitted to taking shortcuts — or "robo-signing" documents — as they pushed through some foreclosures.
Most of the $25 billion settlement is supposed to go toward reducing mortgage payments for some troubled homeowners. But lots of other programs have promised to help struggling homeowners in the past, and results have been disappointing.
So this latest plan is generating some new hope — and lots of skepticism.
There are two big ways this settlement differs from previous programs. For one, it's the first large-scale program that includes principal reductions. Banks will be required to do partial loan forgiveness. Homeowners owing more than their homes are worth could get their heads above water again.
Secondly, it's a settlement, and compliance from the lenders is mandatory — which distinguishes it from other programs that have been voluntary. For those reasons, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan has high expectations.
'We Have To Make This Work'
"We think it's 2 million families that could benefit," he said. "And it's the single most important step to principal reduction. So we have to make this work."
Donovan was speaking at an event in front of hundreds of housing counselors last week who are part of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. Funded by government and nonprofit money, these counselors offer free assistance to homeowners who are trying to negotiate the often frustrating and time-consuming process of getting a mortgage modified.
Counselors are the boots on the ground, and Donovan says homeowners are twice as likely to stay in their homes if they use one.
But Pamela Stalling says her boots feel sluggish. "There's so much confusion. There's a program here, this settlement, and then you hear about the bank settlement. Then you hear about the Obama plan, and that didn't work. So the issue is just getting a clear message out to the consumer."
Stalling is a housing counselor in Hammond, Ind. She says counselors like her haven't received the information they need about what to do or who qualifies under the national bank settlement.
Waiting For The Money
That is typical, says Carolyn Thomas, director of housing counseling for the Sacramento Urban League. Someone trumpets a new program, she says. There are press conferences. Then it takes lots of time for the specifics and the money to trickle down to those who actually need it.
"There is a level of frustration out there, not only among the community, but also amongst the housing counselors," Thomas says. "Because to do it right, and to do it in a way that's really beneficial in a real way, takes time. Time takes money. We don't have it."
But what about the $25 billion? That includes a requirement that banks do $17 billion worth of principal write-downs, plus another $3 billion in refinancings.
But Thomas' frustration is that in order to access that money, banks, counselors and consumers need good information and a clear process to follow.
Is she optimistic the settlement will be different from all the other programs that came before?
"No," Thomas says. "I think it wants to be, you know. And I think it looks great on paper."
A 'Significant' Challenge For Banks
Thomas and others had hoped another portion of the settlement — $2.6 billion that has already gone directly to the states — would help hire more counselors. But some governors and state attorneys general are now saying they need that money to fill budget gaps and pave roads.
A big concern is that lenders still don't have the staff to handle the volume and complexity of the applications that will flood in. That's exactly what plagued earlier loan modification efforts.
Joseph Smith is the man appointed to oversee the national bank settlement.
"Implementing uniform standards throughout their mortgage system is a significant management challenge for these organizations," he says. "The issue to me is how quickly that can all be done, and [how] effectively it can be done. And the banks are concerned about it, by the way. They're working hard to do this."
Both Smith and the banks will collect data to show how effective this program is. His first report is due this fall.