December 31st, 2009 11:35 AM by Lehel S.
There are some modestly hopeful signs that the mortgage crisis is easing. The number of foreclosures declined again in November, a four-month trend. And banks seem to be responding to political pressure by doing more to modify mortgages.
But several ticking time bombs threaten to derail that progress, including stubbornly high unemployment and large numbers of adjustable-rate loans made years ago that are poised to spike upward. Because it's still unclear that banks will do enough on their own, lawmakers at every level must keep working to improve existing programs and implement new ones.
One new strategy has taken root in Philadelphia, and it's worth replicating. The city requires a face-to-face meeting between lender and borrower before a foreclosure can take place.
It seems almost too simple to do any good, but since its inception in 2008, the program has saved about 2,000 homes from foreclosure, with 3,000 more in the pipeline. Apparently, it's more difficult to foreclose when real human beings are sitting in front of you.
With help from nonprofits and volunteer lawyers and counselors, the program also pays for TV ads, door-to-door outreach and hotlines staffed by legal experts.
It is so successful - it's been honored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and been featured on "Nightline" - that other cities are adopting it, and the federal government may take a look.
It's a good investment because foreclosures have an anormous spillover effect. The Center for Responsible Lending estimates that over the next four years, 91.5 million families will lose an average of $20,300 each in home value as foreclosures drag down prices - a total of $1.9trillion.
Declining home values mean less in property tax revenue for cities and counties. They provide an incentive for people to walk away from their homes, which worsens the spiral. Today declining values are among the primary reasons for the continuing foreclosure crisis.
If your neighbor loses his job while he's underwater on his mortgage, he won't be able to sell or refinance, and he's likely to face foreclosure. That, in turn, brings your home's value down even further. And then what happens if you get laid off?
More needs to be done to stop this spiral.
A key step we've advocated is to allow bankruptcy judges to modify the terms of first mortgages, a process known as "cramdown." Given the slow pace of loan modifications, it ought to be revived as part of Congress' effort to reform the financial system.
More federal funding for overworked local programs is also crucial.
And the Obama administration's Home Affordable Mortgage Program still needs work. It pays lenders to modify loans but has helped just a tiny fraction of its applicants. It needs to be more transparent, and lenders must stop foreclosure proceedings while an application is being considered.
With these strategies and promising programs like Philadelphia's, there's growing hope for struggling homeowners - and their neighbors.