THE BLOG

An Ebenezer Scrooge Christmas?

12/21/2010 08:37 pm 20:37:35 | Updated May 25, 2011

This time of year conjures up traditional images of family gatherings, cozy fireplaces, shared meals and happy exchanges of presents -- images of home, security and friendship. But millions of Americans who have had their homes foreclosed or who are in imminent danger of foreclosure have no such sense of security, and in many cases no real home. Far too little is being done to help them.

It seems like Ebenezer Scrooge is running Christmas this year. But it doesn't have to be this way.

I've written before about the utter failure of the federally backed Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), but other efforts to help recession-battered borrowers keep their homes seem to be equally ineffective. A big chunk of TARP money went to 18 states to assist such homeowners, but The New York Times reports that only five of these states actually have their programs up and running. In California, some $2 billion in funding received from the Feds over the past year has yet to help a single homeowner.

The Times' story quotes U.S. Treasury Department spokeswoman Andrea Risotto as saying, "The mortgage industry wasn't set up to help struggling homeowners."

Of course. That was the idea behind creating these government programs, but where is the sense of urgency? This is a fixable problem.

In Washington, our leaders just gave a big Christmas present to America's wealthiest in the newly-signed tax deal. The financial industry is again wildly profitable and preparing to hand out an estimated $144 billion in bonuses this year. Everyone, it seems, is getting a windfall except those in the most desperate need, the families who will lose their homes if a way isn't found to reduce the principal of their mortgages.

The failure to provide meaningful assistance isn't just hurting individual families. It threatens to devastate whole communities -- like the town of Richmond, California, profiled in The Times fore piece, where in some ZIP codes one third or more of homes are in danger of foreclosure.

So what is holding back real mortgage relief? It certainly isn't public opinion. For example, a Lake Research Partners poll taken right before the November midterm elections found overwhelming agreement across party lines that "the foreclosure crisis is a very important issue." In this survey, 60 percent of voters said the government has done too little to prevent foreclosures, while only 17 percent said it had done too much and 14 percent said it had done the right amount. And 58 percent favored requiring banks to renegotiate mortgages to help people keep their homes, while only 19 percent opposed the idea.

This is the right thing to do. The public supports it. If we give struggling homeowners relief by reducing the principal on their mortgages, everyone can win: the families who get to keep their homes, the neighborhoods that won't be torn apart (including the neighbors whose own homes will retain more value if there isn't a wave of foreclosures nearby), and yes, even the banks, who will get reliable if somewhat reduced payments rather than taking a beating on foreclosure sales.

We don't need Scrooge this Christmas, we need compassion and common sense. It's not too late.