February 18, 2009

Hallelujah. This plan not only offers help for families in foreclosure, but also for owner-occupants of underwater mortgages. True, it doesn't address the root cause of inflated housing values (and that must be addressed at some point), but it's a smart, comprehensive plan of attack - and as a whole, a very good beginning. Color me impressed:

MESA, Ariz. — President Obama pledged on Wednesday to help as many as 9 million American homeowners refinance their mortgages or avert foreclosure, an initiative he said would shore up distressed housing prices, stabilize neighborhoods and slow a downward spiral that he said was “unraveling homeownership, the middle class, and the American Dream itself.”

The plan, more ambitious than many housing analysts had expected, was unveiled by Mr. Obama in a high school gymnasium here, in a community that is among the nation’s hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis.

“This plan will not save every home, but it will give millions of families resigned to financial ruin a chance to rebuild,” the president told the crowd. “It will prevent the worst consequences of this crisis from wreaking even greater havoc on the economy. And by bringing down the foreclosure rate, it will help to shore up housing prices for everyone.”

The plan has three basic components. One would help homeowners who continue to make loan payments on time, but are paying high interest rates and would otherwise not be able to refinance because they do not have enough equity or their houses are worth less than they borrowed. A second would assist people who are at risk of foreclosure by providing incentives to lenders to alter the terms of loans to make them substantially more affordable to struggling homeowners. The third would try to assure there is plenty of credit available for mortgages by giving $200 billion of additional financial backing to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-controlled mortgage finance companies.

The announcement came a day after Mr. Obama signed his $787 billion economic recovery package, and administration officials like Timothy F. Geithner, the Treasury secretary, made the case that they will work in tandem. In announcing the housing plan, Mr. Obama struck a populist note, criticizing speculators and “lenders who knowingly took advantage of homebuyers” with the same vehemence he used in going after Wall Street bankers for giving themselves bonuses as their companies were seeking government help.

“It will not help speculators who took risky bets on a rising market and bought homes not to live in but to sell,” he said, adding, “And it will not reward folks who bought homes they knew from the beginning they would never be able to afford.”

The plan will take effect March 4, when the administration publishes detailed rules explaining it. Most of the plan can be enacted by Mr. Obama though his executive powers, although part of it — including changing the bankruptcy laws to allow homeowners to seek changes to their mortgages through bankruptcy proceedings — will require legislation. Mr. Geithner said the administration is already in discussions with lawmakers on how to proceed.

In allowing homeowners who are not delinquent to qualify, the plan marks a sharp break from the housing policies of Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. Mr. Geithner and the new Housing secretary, Shaun Donovan, said the administration’s research had determined that, with 10 percent of American homeowners either in foreclosure or in danger of it, it was better to intervene early.

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