Less than 20 percent of homeowners who theoretically qualify for a government mortgage modification are actually eligible, according to data released Monday by the Treasury Department.
Although roughly 4.6 million U.S. homeowners have missed at least two mortgage payments -- making them technically eligible for Making Home Affordable, the federal government's flagship homeowner assistance program -- a whopping 80 percent of those borrowers cannot be helped by the program. According to the Treasury report, just 900,000 homeowners actually qualify for a loan modification under Making Home Affordable.
Dean Baker, an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said that fact reflects the program's low goals. "If 900,000 are eligible, and this is your main program for helping underwater borrowers, and we know that not all 900,000 can be helped, this doesn't look very ambitious," he said.
The numbers reinforce just how far short the program, initiated by President Barack Obama with much fanfare in early 2009, has fallen short of its goals and fuel critics' assertions that the program is largely ineffective. "This program, in its design, is set up to help a very small portion of people," said Baker.
(Under Making Home Affordable, homeowners who aren't yet delinquent in mortgage payments but are at risk of imminent default might also qualify for loan modifications. The Treasury data did not include that population.)
Borrowers are locked out of the federal program for a myriad of reasons, including the kind of loan they have and the property at issue. Not covered by the program: rental properties, "manufactured" homes, homes with Federal Housing Administration loans, and homes with Department of Veteran Affairs loans.
Many borrowers can't get help because their monthly mortgage payment is deemed affordable, irrespective of whether it actually is for the borrower. The idea behind the loan modification program is to make the monthly mortgage payment more affordable, defined as a payment that is less than 31 percent of the borrower's total monthly debt payments (think car payments, student loans, credit cards, etc.). One-third of homeowners who would otherwise qualify are ineligible because they already have a mortgage payment that meets this criteria, according to the Treasury report.
Borrowers who have abandoned their property are also ineligible, the assumption being that they are not committed to their home.
"If you look at the large number of vacant properties, I think that speaks to the fact that, in many cases, the borrowers were reached too late in the game," said Baker. "The borrower assumed they'd lose their home so they walked away. You could say those people aren't eligible, but they might have been if we'd reached them earlier."
Source: Treasury Department report.