Congress, Let’s Get Some Real Relief for the Housing Crisis

Posted February 2, 2009 at 3:48pm

Has anyone who lives or works on Capitol Hill looked around the supposedly recession-proof neighborhood lately?

[IMGCAP(1)]It’s impossible to walk to Eastern Market or stroll to Union Station without seeing signs of the housing crisis surrounding us.

Sure, the statistics here in the nation’s capital may not be the highest, but the plethora of pre-spring “for sale” signs stand as sentinel warnings that it’s long past the deadline for doing something to help struggling homeowners stay afloat.

Now that the House has approved the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Senate is about to pore over the details and pass its own version.

Well, folks, Congress should reconsider helping homeowners not with another goodwill gesture — but with real relief that will give families a chance to stay in their neighborhood.

Let’s hope “three strikes you’re out” doesn’t apply when it comes to assisting America’s homeowners.

Strike one occurred last year when a provision allowing homeowners to get help modifying their loans never made it into the $700 billion Wall Street bailout bill, otherwise known as the Troubled Assets Relief Program.

Congress and the people who got real relief — corporate fat cats in golden parachutes pocketing year-end bonuses — didn’t look out for their fellow Americans.

The second strike occurred just last week when the House debated its version of the emergency stimulus bill.

Once again, homeowners in desperate need of relief found themselves discarded on the cutting room floor. Too bad the actors in this drama are honest, hardworking and, might I point out, taxpaying Americans who just want some real help.

Now that the Senate is reviewing the bill, the issue that remains is who will champion relief for homeowners.

Many of these homeowners now struggling with out-of-control interest rates actually qualified for conventional loans rather than the predatory loans they were saddled with. What’s wrong with giving them some relief if they’re willing to stay in their homes and continue to pay what little they can afford?

Congress believed, wrongly, that banks and lenders would use available tools to voluntarily modify the loans at the rate needed. Talk about wishful thinking! While Congress fiddles, millions of families continue to get burned.

At some point, and I suggest it has arrived, the Obama administration will have to step in to help those teetering on the edge of losing their one remaining asset.

Let’s run the numbers. Millions of American families have already lost their homes, the number of homes lost last year is up 180 percent from 2007, and every week 46,000 more families are added to that heartbreaking list.

In 2009 alone, 2.4 million families will lose their homes. Recent calculations predict that at least 8.1 million Americans will lose their homes to foreclosure within the next four years.

Approximately 2.3 million of those 8.1 million will be senior citizens, better known to children everywhere as grandma and grandpa.

At this rate, the number of homes lost to foreclosure in a three-month span could add up to half of what most U.S. Representatives know as their entire Congressional district.

Congress best give serious consideration to legislation introduced in both chambers by two champions of affordable housing: Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.). The Helping Families Save Their Homes in Bankruptcy Act will keep homeowners out of bankruptcy court by allowing them to have their mortgages modified after all other efforts have failed.

This legislation should be shot through the legislative process on turbo-jet roller skates. Families need help now, damn it, not when they’re locked out of their homes.

“This economic crisis began with the bubble that burst in the housing market,” Durbin reminded his fellow Senators. “So we have to address that, first and foremost. Families need to be able to stay in their homes, and communities need to be stabilized before the economy can start to grow again.”

Amen, Sen. Durbin. According to one of the leading international financial services firm, Credit Suisse, judicial loan modifications would prevent at least 20 percent of home foreclosures and save about 1.8 million families.

Can someone, anyone, please explain exactly what’s wrong with court-supervised loan modifications as another tool to help stop the tsunami of foreclosures? No? I didn’t think so.

Meanwhile, check this out: If you own commercial real estate or a yacht, bankruptcy courts will allow you to renegotiate the terms of that loan you made to buy a skyscraper or 75-foot floating playpen.

Even stinkers like subprime lender New Century and the ever-greedy Lehman Brothers have this right, but not Henry and Harriet Homeowner and their three kids.

The banks and investment firms that morphed into financial institutions to receive assistance are still in line to get even more taxpayer money.

And even the once-mighty auto industry received a lifeline to stay afloat for a couple of months. Meanwhile, tax-paying homeowners and their families are ignored. Why? Why not give them a fighting chance to stay in their homes, neighborhoods and local schools?

This is more than a double standard. It’s immoral. And it should be criminal.

I will be paying intense attention to the upcoming Senate debate. I urge you to do the same. Let’s hope the third time’s the charm.

Congress, do the right thing. Help your constituents stay in their homes by lifting the ban on court-supervised mortgage modifications.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.