The Obama administration on Friday will announce a broad new initiative to help troubled homeowners, potentially refinancing several million of them into fresh government-backed mortgages with lower payments.
The escalation in aid comes as the administration is under rising pressure from Congress to resolve the foreclosure crisis, which has put millions of Americans at risk of losing their homes. But the programs are likely to provoke protests among those who have kept up their payments and are not in trouble.
A major element of the new program, according to several people briefed on it, will be to encourage lenders to write down the value of loans for borrowers in modification programs. Until now, modification programs have focused on lowering interest rates.
In another major element, the government, through the Federal Housing Administration, will refinance loans from borrowers who have seen the value of their homes sink below what they owe. More than 11 million homeowners are in this position, known as being underwater. That aspect of the plan would apply even to borrowers who have not fallen behind in their mortgage payments.
The investors who own the loans would have to swallow losses, but would likely be assured of getting more in the long run than if the borrowers went into foreclosure. The F.H.A. would insure the new loans against the risk of default.
Many details of the administration’s plan remained unclear Thursday night, including the precise scope of the new programs and the number of homeowners who might be likely to qualify.
This much was clear, however: the plan could put taxpayers at increased risk. If many additional borrowers move into F.H.A. loans, a new downturn in the housing market could send that government agency into the red.
The F.H.A. has already expanded its mortgage-guarantee program substantially in the last three years as the housing crisis deepened, insuring more than six million borrowers. Those briefed on the plan said the agency would receive $14 billion in funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, cash it could dangle in front of financial institutions as incentives to participate in the new program.
A third element of the White House’s housing program will require lenders to offer unemployed borrowers a reduction in their payments for a minimum of three months.
An administration official declined to speak on the record about the new programs but said they will “better assist responsible homeowners who have been affected by the economic crisis through no fault of their own.”
The plan would essentially supplant the government’s earlier mortgage modification plan, announced a year ago with great fanfare. It has resulted in fewer than 200,000 people getting permanent new loans. As many as seven million borrowers are seriously delinquent on their loans and at risk of foreclosure.
While fewer people are beginning default, the number of borrowers who are seriously distressed is rising. In the fourth quarter, the number of households at least 90 days past due on their mortgages swelled by 270,000, according to a report issued Thursday by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
“The government is seeking to persuade people to stay in their homes by aligning the mortgage debt with the asset value, which is only viable path to real housing stability,” said one person briefed on the government’s plans. Several people who described the plans would speak only on condition of anonymity, since they had not been authorized to disclose details ahead of a White House briefing scheduled for Friday morning.
The number of foreclosures in the fourth quarter rose 9 percent, to 128,859. Another 38,000 owners disposed of their homes in short sales, where the lender agrees to accept less than it is owed. Starting this month, the Treasury Department is promoting new rules to facilitate short sales. Borrowers who are trying to sell their homes in short sales can also put off foreclosure for many months.
Both lenders and the Obama administration have been under pressure to save many of the homeowners now in foreclosure limbo. Bank of America, the country’s biggest bank, announced this week that it would forgive principal balances over a period of years on an initial 45,000 troubled loans.
Lenders began offering principal forgiveness last year on loans they held in their own portfolios. In the fourth quarter, however, this process abruptly reversed itself. The number of modifications that included principal reduction fell by half.
A person briefed on the plan said it was unclear how many of the 11.4 million underwater borrowers in the country would qualify for the new program, but the number could well be in the millions.
The administration recognizes that some people’s finances have deteriorated so far that they are beyond help, the person said. People in that situation simply cannot afford the houses they are living in, the person said, even if the mortgages were reduced to match the current value of the homes.
“All these programs are geared toward people for whom it makes sense, for whom it’s workable when all is said and done,” the person said. “Some people are too far gone.”