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Obama Unveils $75 Billion Fix To Help Homeowners


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Ari Shapiro.

Millions of Americans who risk losing their homes to foreclosure could get some relief under a plan that President Obama outlined yesterday. In a moment, we'll hear what analysts and people in the housing industry are saying about the plan, but first some details of what's in it.

For starters, it won't be cheap. Mr. Obama wants to spend at least $75 billion, and perhaps a lot more, to help families go from monthly mortgages they cannot afford to lower payments that they can. NPR's Scott Horsley was traveling with the president. He has this report.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Until now the federal government has been urging lenders to give struggling homeowners a break voluntarily, but that hasn't slowed the wave of defaults. A record 2.3 million home loans went into foreclosure last year. With even more home losses expected this year, President Obama decided it's time to put some real money on the table.

President BARACK OBAMA: There will be a cost associated with this plan, but by making these investments in foreclosure prevention today, we will save ourselves the costs of foreclosure tomorrow, costs that are borne not just by families with troubled loans, but by their neighbors and communities and by our economy as a whole.

HORSLEY: Under the $75 billion plan Mr. Obama outlined in Arizona yesterday, lenders would be encouraged to restructure home loans so the monthly payment is no more than 31 percent of a borrower's income - a ratio that's generally considered affordable. In return, the government would reimburse the lender for up to half the difference between the new loan and the old one.

President OBAMA: Lenders will need to lower interest rates and share in the costs of reducing monthly payments in order to prevent another wave of foreclosures. Borrowers will be required to make payments on time in return for this opportunity to reduce those payments.

HORSLEY: The plan also includes an upfront incentive for loan servicers who agree to the restructuring and rewards for servicers and borrowers if they keep the new loan on track.

A second part of the president's plan is aimed at people who are not in danger of defaulting on their mortgage but who could still save money if they were able to refinance. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan estimates there are four to five million families who are ineligible to refinance into government-backed loans because falling home prices have stripped them of the required 20 percent home equity.

Secretary SHAUN DONOVAN (Department of Housing and Urban Development): These families have seen, through no fault of their own, values in their communities on houses drop by 20, 30, 40, even 50 percent, and find themselves in a situation where even if they're holding a mortgage that is far above market rates, they cannot take advantage of refinancing down to what are really historically low mortgage rates.

HORSLEY: The president's plan would relax the 20 percent equity requirement so more borrowers could refinance, saving an average of more than $2,000 a year.

The Treasury Department is also taking steps to help mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac keep interest rates low. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says despite the high price tag of these programs, they amount to smart economics.

Secretary TIMOTHY GEITHNER (Department of Treasury): By helping keep mortgage rates down and helping reduce monthly payments, you're putting money in the hands of Americans. In that case it acts like stimulus. Second is, by keeping interest rates low, by making it more affordable for people to stay in their homes and by reducing the amount of foreclosures ahead, we can reduce the risk the housing prices fall further than they otherwise would.

HORSLEY: President Obama argued during the campaign helping homeowners is an important step in shoring up the shaky banking system. HUD Secretary Donovan said yesterday stemming the rising tide of foreclosures could make some of those mortgage-backed securities banks are holding a little less radioactive.

Sec. DONOVAN: The reason they've been toxic is because families haven't been able to pay. And so this will take millions of mortgages that currently aren't affordable to families and make them affordable. That will also help to stabilize the balance sheets of these banks.

HORSLEY: The president's plan drew immediate skepticism, though, from Republicans in Congress, who suggest it's simply rewarding borrowers and lenders who've behaved irresponsibly. Most of the money for the foreclosure plan has already been authorized by Congress, so the administration won't need spending permission from Capitol Hill. Asked why the plan had grown from early estimates of 50 billion to $75 billion, Treasury Secretary Geithner said that's how much money is needed to make a program like this work.

Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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