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McCain seeks aid for some homeowners

The GOP presidential hopeful called for federal aid for well-meaning homeowners who can't pay their mortgages, in an attempt to fend off criticism that he has been indifferent to the housing crisis.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sen. John McCain called for federal aid for well-meaning homeowners who can't pay their mortgages, an attempt to fend off criticism that he has been indifferent to the housing crisis and the market upheaval it has spawned.

McCain sketched out a plan Thursday to help 200,000 to 400,000 homeowners trade burdensome mortgages for manageable loans in a speech in Brooklyn. Aides said the plan could cost from $3 billion to $10 billion.

Still missing were details on exactly who would be eligible for help; McCain said he wants to aid those who borrowed sensibly but now can't handle their mortgages.

"There is nothing more important than keeping alive the American dream to own your home," the likely GOP presidential nominee said in a speech before joining in a roundtable discussion at a Brooklyn company, Windows We Are Inc.

"And priority No. 1 is to keep well-meaning, deserving homeowners who are facing foreclosure in their homes," the Arizona senator said.

The Bush administration and both parties in Congress also are proposing varying degrees of federal help for burdened homeowners.

In proposing specific aid, McCain struck a different tone than he did in an address last month. Then, McCain said he opposed aggressive intervention by the government to solve the crisis and that he preferred only limited intervention and letting market forces play out.

Democrats criticized the shift in tone; presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton called his plan a halfhearted version of her own efforts.

"So now he's changed positions and is finally responding to a housing crisis that has been going on for months, but unfortunately his actions are only half-measures," Clinton said in a statement.

Sen. Barack Obama, who was laying out his own proposal for a $30 billion second economic stimulus package at a town hall meeting in Gary, Ind., Thursday, said McCain's plan offers little in the way of solutions.

"I'm glad he's finally decided to offer a plan," Obama said in a statement released by his campaign. "Better late than never. But don't expect any real answers, don't expect it to actually help struggling families because Senator McCain's solution to the housing crisis seems a lot like the George Bush solution of sitting by and hoping it passes while families face foreclosure and watch the value of their homes erode."

McCain's proposals would help between 200,000 and 400,000 homeowners and would back mortgages worth an estimated $3 billion to $10 billion, according to Doug Holtz-Eakin, senior policy adviser to McCain.

Just who would be eligible depends on who applies for help, Holtz-Eakin said.

"It has to be someone who at the time looked like they were a sensible borrower and now they can't handle it," he said.

He said the plan would help at least some people with adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARMs, as opposed to 30-year fixed loans.

Other details of his plan include:

— Unlike the Democrats, McCain would have individual borrowers apply to have their mortgages refinanced. Democrats would have the mortgage-holders apply for refinancing, which Holtz-Eakin said could leave taxpayers on the hook for risky loans that lenders want to unload.

— And unlike Bush, McCain would let people have more equity in their homes; Bush would allow as little as 3 percent, while McCain would allow 10 percent, Holtz-Eakin said.

— McCain's plan would benefit the government as well as the original lender by giving them certificates for part of the loan's original value. If the homeowner sold for more, he or she would benefit along with the government and the original lender.

"It is built on the reality that homeowners should have an equity capital stake in their home," he said. "Homeowners would end up with a 30-year mortgage and an equity stake in their home. The new lender would receive a federal guarantee of the mortgage.

"And the taxpayer gets a benefit if the sale value ever recovers," he said.

McCain said lenders ultimately need to write off losses, restructure balance sheets and raise more capital.