Government programs have failed to stem foreclosures

Op-ed originally published in Newsday;21 Tweets; 8 Facebook posts

Even as news reports offer hope of economic recovery, the figures on home foreclosures remain stuck in a recessionary winter. When the books close on 2010, banks will have repossessed a record 1.2 million U.S. homes, up 33 percent from 2009.

On Long Island, we ranked a dreadful second in a new measure published last month: Given the current rate of home sales, it would take 30.4 months to sell all the foreclosed and "distressed" properties here. Only Miami has a larger, slower-moving inventory.

The housing crisis is entering its fourth year, yet people are still losing their homes at a disastrous rate. In Nassau and Suffolk counties, 893 new foreclosure cases were opened in November alone. Despite a series of programs intended to prevent foreclosures, lenders and the federal government have failed.

A congressional panel overseeing the federal programs admitted as much earlier this month. The marquee initiative, the Home Affordable Modification Program, will end up preventing only 800,000 foreclosures, at a maximum, vastly fewer than the 3 million to 4 million it initially aimed to stop. Even more worrisome: This is the third foreclosure prevention effort launched by the federal government since 2007, and the fourth overall. The first was initiated by the mortgage writers themselves - an early washout.

The fundamental flaw in every case is relying on lenders to voluntarily reduce a borrower's monthly payments to affordable levels. One would think that keeping the mortgage checks coming would be in lenders' interests. By foreclosing on a home, they recover only a fraction of the value of the loan.

But apparently there are financial incentives working in the opposite direction. In our system of bundled, resold mortgages, the companies that service the loans can sometimes make more money by charging fees throughout the foreclosure process.

One way around this would be to make loan modifications mandatory. The House voted in 2009 to give bankruptcy court judges the power to reduce mortgages so that people could afford to stay in their homes. Regrettably, the Senate refused to pass this measure. It should be reintroduced.

The government's half-steps to date reflect an unwillingness to "reward" people who foolishly signed up for mortgages they couldn't afford. But many who are struggling have fallen on hard times for unforeseen reasons, often because of job loss. It's a Catch-22 that some people could relocate for new jobs - if only they could sell their homes in this terrible market.

To be sure, it would be better if the housing market recovered and the value of people's homes came back. Some believe the quickest route is to allow the foreclosures to proceed. But blaming homeowners ignores the culpability of lenders, who duped many buyers with teaser rates, balloon payments and outright lies about the loan terms - to say nothing of recent revelations that lenders couldn't produce paperwork to prove they hold the loans. Bankruptcy court judges should be given discretion on whether a lender acted in bad faith.

A new law taking effect Jan. 22 in New York will allow bankruptcy filers to retain up to $150,000 in home equity, or $300,000 for a couple, potentially allowing many to keep their homes. Time will tell if this will be adequate.

It's striking that during the 1930s, the most recent era when U.S. home prices fell so dramatically, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made not only a practical argument to save homes, but a moral plea: The "broad interests of the nation require that specific safeguards should be thrown around home ownership as a guarantee of social and economic stability."

It's time we made this commitment to stability too.