The Obama administration’s $50 billion mortgage relief program is finally picking up speed after a sluggish and disappointing start: Nearly one in five eligible homeowners has been offered help so far, the Treasury Dept. said Wednesday. The "Making Home Affordable" plan was launched with great fanfare in March. As of last month, lenders had sent out more than 571,000 offers to reduce borrowers' monthly payments, the Treasury Department said Wednesday.


That's 19 percent of the nearly 3 million homeowners eligible for a loan modification under the plan, up from 15 percent at the end of July.

"There are signs the plan is working," said Michael Barr, assistant Treasury secretary for financial institutions. "But we can do better."

Much better, lawmakers and housing counselors say.

"We think that you're missing the mark," Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., told a panel of mortgage industry executives at a House hearing Wednesday.

Of the modifications offered, about 360,000 borrowers, or 12 percent, have signed up for three-month trial modifications, which are supposed to be extended for five years if the homeowners make their payments on time.


To increase pressure on the industry, Waters and other lawmakers threatened to revive a failed proposal, opposed by banking lobbyists, to let bankruptcy judges rewrite the terms of a mortgage. That change is necessary, consumer groups say, because getting a lender to do so voluntarily is still a time-consuming, bureaucratic nightmare. Many lenders are still scheduling foreclosure sales, and charging borrowers fees for participating in the Obama plan.


"The administration has got to put some teeth in this and really get some consequences for the lenders and servicers who are not cooperating," said Bonnie Mathias, a board member of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN.

But mortgage executives say they are racing to implement the program, hiring thousands of workers to handle an unprecedented flood of calls.


"We fully understand the urgency," Jack Shackett, Bank of America's head of credit loss prevention, told lawmakers. "We understand that we have a long way to go under very challenging circumstances."


Bank of America has doubled its number of trial modifications in two months to nearly 60,000. But it still lags its competitors, having enrolled about 7 percent of its 836,000 eligible loans, compared with 25 percent for JPMorgan Chase & Co.

The Treasury Department's decision to publish those numbers has clearly provided a powerful inventive for many in the industry.


Lenders are "concerned about the report card showing them in a worse light than their peers," said David Stevens, an assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Nobody wants to be a low performer on that score card."


Industry executives also say they are planning to work with Obama administration officials on a possible extension of the program to unemployed homeowners. Also under consideration is finding a way to help borrowers with "pick-a-payment" or option ARM loans, which gave borrowers the ability to defer some of their interest payments and add them to the principal.


Treasury says 48 mortgage companies are now involved in the program, up from 38 in July. The companies have requested financial information from almost two-thirds of eligible borrowers and say they are on track to have 500,000 loan modifications in place by Nov. 1.

The program is voluntary, relying on subsidies to encourage mortgage companies to participate. Lenders must agree to reduce the loan payments to 38 percent of a borrower's monthly pretax income. After that, the government and lender split the cost of bringing the payment down to 31 percent.


Borrowers can receive rates as low as 2 percent for five years. Eligible borrowers have to provide their most recent tax return and two pay stubs, as well as an "affidavit of financial hardship" to qualify. But some borrowers are in such dire financial shape that they don't know if getting a modification will be the magic bullet.


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