By John W. Schoen Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 3/14/2008 4:54:42 PM ET 2008-03-14T20:54:42

The government’s flagship program to give struggling homeowners relief from overwhelming mortgage payments has left hundreds if not thousands of callers frustrated by long wait times, lack of follow-up and relatively minor loan modifications that have failed to help.

A story last week on msnbc.com generated hundreds of e-mail responses from readers who have called the heavily promoted hotline. Almost all the callers said they encountered a variety of roadblocks in their efforts to save their homes.

Officials affiliated with the effort said in interviews that they have helped many borrowers but say there are misunderstandings about the limited scope of the program.

The Hope Now Alliance, a private partnership organized by the federal government, launched in October and trumpeted repeatedly by President Bush and other top administration officials, has been criticized by members of Congress, state officials, and private credit counselors.

To date, the federal government's efforts to help the growing number of homeowners facing foreclosure have focused largely on prodding lenders to modify existing loans to more affordable levels. More than a million of these loans, written during the height of the lending boom, are scheduled to reset to interest rates that many homeowners will no longer be able to afford.

But the Hope Now hotline has left many callers frustrated and without hope, judging from e-mail correspondence. Readers report difficulty getting through to hotline counselors, cursory reviews of their cases, lack of follow-up, confusion over who is eligible for help, and, for those who did reach lenders, relatively minor loan modifications that weren’t sustainable over the long term.

“I was fortunate to find a helpline like HOPE, which helped with the depression I was going through of losing my home,” said a reader named Yenny from Roselle, N.J. “The problem is the loan modification that I just got from my lender is higher, and I cannot afford it. What do I do now?”

Hope Now officials say they have fielded hundreds of thousands of calls and are providing a critical bridge between homeowners at risk and their lenders. Some 141,000 loans were modified in the fourth quarter of last year, up from 76,000 in the third quarter, according to the alliance.

“(Loan) modifications have gone up significantly,” said Hope Now Alliance executive director Faith Schwartz in an interview. “But I think there's more work to be done.”

Part of the challenge stems from the enormous complexity of the securitized loan pools that funded the lending boom earlier in the decade. Because these pools were sold off to thousands of investors, modifying any given mortgage involves agreements involving hundreds of investors whose securities are backed by that loan. That has forced loan servicers — who were originally set up to manage payments — to enter the fray of restructuring hundreds of thousands of loans.

“We are doing everything we can to avoid foreclosure and work through the structures of these loans with the borrower and with the servicer,” said Schwartz. “This is a loan-by-loan solution, and everyone is working very hard to make that a success.”

The Hope Now Alliance also faces the challenge of coordinating the efforts of dozens of independent entities. Prodded by the Bush administration, the alliance signed up 11 large lenders representing some 60 percent of the U.S. mortgage market, along with industry trade groups like the Mortgage Bankers Association. A handful of housing advocacy and community groups also signed on, including the Homeownership Preservation Foundation, which operated a counseling hotline.

“We’re working with third-party housing counselors, we’re working on improving communication and access to services,” said Schwartz. “And it’s not easy.”

Though the Alliance is pursuing its mission on several fronts, including a mass mailing offering help to homeowners at risk of default, the centerpiece of the effort is a toll-free hotline, 1-888-995–HOPE.

Our story last week on the hotline’s progress generated several hundred e-mails from homeowners, some of whom said they had already lost their homes. Some readers were critical of any government program designed to help homeowners who, they believe, knowingly took on loans they couldn’t afford. Others offered ideas on solutions to help those with distressed mortgages in danger of losing their homes. One volunteered to answer calls for the hotline.

But of those who reported contacting the hotline, the overwhelming majority were critical of the response they got. Some said they’re still waiting to hear back.

“I spoke to someone there, and they promised to get back to me and haven't,” said Kathy Turnbaugh, of Altoona, Pa. “That was on Feb. 23. It is now March 6, and I still haven't heard from them. My house is scheduled for a sheriff's sale on April 9, so I was really hoping someone would help me out. I need to save my home, but don't know where else to turn.”

Professionals working with homeowners facing foreclosure also complained that the program was falling short in its mission.

“I am a bankruptcy attorney in California,” wrote Randy Walton, of Modesto, Calif. “I have sent countless clients to the toll-free number 888-995-HOPE. Almost every client has returned to my office for bankruptcy relief because either: (1) nobody answered the toll free number (a recording explains that ‘thousands’ of people call every day); or (2) the ’counselors’ could not or would not help them.”

“I am a 30-year mortgage industry veteran and called the number just to be left on hold and told they were busy and (the) call disconnected,” wrote Jane Martin, a financial advisor in Alexandria, Ind., who specializes in mortgages. “This is unacceptable and explains the failure of the program.”

Hope Now officials also say the frustration reported by msnbc.com readers may be due, in part, to a misunderstanding about the program’s scope.

“(Many callers) report that they are calling for a variety of reasons including looking for grant or rescue funds, wanting general information, needing to know how to contact their servicer, qualifying for a rate freeze or needing to talk to their servicer,” said Tracy Morgan, communications director for the Homeownership Preservation Foundation, which operates the hotline for the alliance. “Every caller is not necessarily a candidate for counseling for these reasons.”

In addition, not all callers have a realistic hope of saving their home. For some, say credit counselors, the best option may be to sell the home and avoid the foreclosure process and resulting damage to their future ability to get credit.

But some readers reported much more basic problems — like getting through to speak with a counselor.

“The wait time was 30 minutes to an hour just to get a machine that told me the wait time could be up to an hour,” wrote Elizabeth Valovich, of Hot Springs, Ark. “It was ridiculous. For a person already under stress of possibly losing their home and creditors calling constantly at all hours of the day and night harassing, it is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Hope Now officials said some readers who reported trouble getting through may have encountered delays resulting from call spikes when the program was launched in October and again when the White House promoted the line at a Dec. 6 news conference.

The Homeownership Preservation Foundation, which operates the hotline for Hope Now, reports that in February, the average response time to answer calls was 25 seconds; that 78 percent of callers were transferred to a counselor in less that three minutes; and that the call “abandonment rate” — those who couldn’t get through — was 6 percent.

In recent spot checks performed by msnbc.com, calls went through to operators quickly after a 60-second pre-recorded message.

Many callers who did get through said they were unable to work out a loan modification or payment plan for a variety of reasons: They were told their credit score was too low; their loan was bigger than the value of their home; or they couldn’t be helped because their loan was already in foreclosure. One reader reported being told help was available only if they were behind in their payments; another that said they had to be current.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that lenders and mortgage loan servicers have developed multiple modification programs with different guidelines and qualifying criteria, said Morgan of the Homeownership Preservation Foundation.

“We are able to provide counseling regardless of whether or not they fit (those programs) and connect them to that servicer to continue that conversation if it’s appropriate,” she said.

But because the final decisions are made by individual lenders, the outcomes may vary for homeowners in similar circumstances.

As the pace of foreclosures has risen, the Hope Now hotline has ramped up to meet big increases in call volume. A year ago, the hotline was staffed with 64 counselors from three HUD-approved independent counseling agencies. By October, when the hotline joined the Alliance, calls were fielded by 150 counselors from five agencies. Today, the line is staffed by 450 counselors from 10 agencies.

But some critics say the program simply hasn’t ramped up fast enough to handle the growing number of homeowners in trouble.

“Every time I see a new projection on the number of homeowners that are going to be impacted in the next 12 months, that number gets larger,” said Susan Keating, CEO of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, which has over 100 member agencies across the country. “We’re now six months into the Hope Now hotline, and we just haven’t seen enough progress commensurate with the need out there.”

In a letter last month, Keating offered the Alliance the services of more than 750 certified credit and housing counselors but said her offer was rejected on the grounds that it “did not fit (the) business model” of the Homeownerhip Preservation Fund, which operates the hotline.

Some of the frustration expressed by readers may result from the nature of hotline counseling. To deal with the high volume, the Hope Now hotline uses a streamlined system of taking calls. The process involves taking information about the caller’s loan and financial status, helping them work out a budget and then referring them to their lenders.

This so-called “Level I” service also includes getting the caller’s authorization to provide financial information to the lender and creating an “action plan” that lists options and next steps. Morgan said that additional counseling is available for callers who need it.

But officials at the NFCC say there are several important additional steps that give homeowners the best chance of saving their home. This so-called “Level 2” service includes verification of the household budget information supplied by the client; a draft “hardship letter” explaining to the lender the reasons for the loan delinquency and a plan to correct it; supporting documentation to strengthen the request for loan modification; and follow-up sessions based on the lender’s response.

Morgan at the HPF says such additional counseling is available to callers, and notes that many of the agencies providing counseling through the hotline are NFCC members. But Keating said in her letter that “HPF is insisting that agencies may only provide the limited Level 1 services ... regardless of the needs of the troubled homeowner.”

Some callers who were able to get through to their lender said they felt abandoned after being handed off by the hotline counselor.

“After two months of making several phone calls and e-mails to my counselor from Hope begging for her help, nothing was ever resolved,” said Deanna Burns, of Webb City, Mo. “My mortgage company is GMAC and they were rude and unwilling to work out anything with us. By this point, I am one week away from being three months behind on my mortgage, and the credit card payments are now into collections. It is too difficult to catch up. It is now March and my husband and I will be deciding on one of two choices this week: 1) bankruptcy or 2) foreclosure.”

Morgan said the alliance understands the need for more follow-up but simply is unable to monitor such a large volume of cases all the way through to final resolution.

“That’s not part of our staffing model,” she said. “We are there to provide that counseling on the phone to those folks. We don’t follow up with the servicers. We’re unfortunately not staffed to do that.”

In some cases, said Morgan, the delayed response to homeowners is the result of a backlog of cases under review by lenders and servicers, who have to review each loan one at a time.

“I think there are a lot of servicers out there that are absolutely underwater — people sitting there with 20 files on their desk that need to be reviewed,” she said. “The general sense of the counseling community is that they’re overworked. They need to staff up, and they need to continue to do that.”

The lack of follow-through has also prompted criticism from state officials that it’s difficult — if not impossible — to measure Hope Now’s real progress in keeping people in their homes over the long term. Hope Now says it has helped some 640,000 homeowners modify their loans since October, but it’s not clear how many of those modifications were sufficient to keep the borrowers from losing their homes.

“Yes (I) went into a remodification plan, but it just made my payment higher and unaffordable,” said Maria Lackey, of Reynoldsburg, Ohio. “I cannot sell the house because I purchased it for $114,900 and it is now worth only around $100,000. So I either stick it out and starve to pay the house or walk away from it altogether.”

A study released by the Mortgage Bankers Association last month found that in the third quarter of 2007, borrowers who couldn’t meet repayment plans or loan modifications accounted for 37 to 40 percent of foreclosures on subprime mortgages (loans made to borrowers with poor credit records) and 14 to 17 percent of foreclosures on prime mortgages. That means that many borrowers are losing their homes even after negotiating modified repayment plans.

Homeowners at risk aren’t the only ones with a stake in the success of Hope Now. Economists and housing industry analysts say the steep housing recession, and the ongoing decline in home prices, won’t end until the foreclosure rate begins to subside. In the fourth quarter of 2007, mortgage default rates soared to their highest level in 23 years, and the foreclosure rate hit a record.

Hope Now’s progress is being watched by lawmakers on Capitol Hill, some of whom believe the government needs to widen its response.

“(Hope Now) does not have the resources or capacity to deal with the sheer size of the problem that has millions of Americans in financial straits,” Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said in a statement last week.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has resisted calls for wider government intervention and last week repeated opposition to calls for a government-funded buyout of distressed mortgage securities or for a change in bankruptcy laws to allow judges to modify mortgages.

State officials have been pressing lenders and loan servicers to provide more information on how many loans they’re modifying and the terms they’ve offered. Last month, Maryland became the fourth state — after California, Michigan and Ohio — to ask industry officials to meet with state regulators besieged by complaints that loan servicers aren't responsive to homeowners with mortgage questions.

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