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Obama announces new housing initiatives
News conference » The initiative includes new mortgage relief for members of the military and veterans and homeowners with government-insured loans.
First Published Mar 06 2012 11:42 am • Last Updated Mar 06 2012 11:46 am

WASHINGTON • President Obama is announcing new mortgage relief for members of the military and veterans as well as homeowners with government-insured loans. The initiatives are the latest administration attempt to help borrowers struggling under a depressed housing market.

Obama spelled out the plan Tuesday at the start of his first news conference of the year.

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Borrowers with mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration would be able to refinance at half the fee that the FHA currently charges. The administration says a typical FHA borrower who refinances could save more than $1,000 a year from the changes.

For service members and veterans, Obama says major lenders will review foreclosures or denials of lower interest rates. If wrongly foreclosed upon, service members will be paid their lost equity and receive additional compensation.

The efforts Obama is announcing do not require congressional approval and are limited in comparison with the vast expansion of government assistance to homeowners that he asked Congress to approve last month. That $5 billion to $10 billion plan would make it easier for more borrowers with burdensome mortgages to refinance their loans.

Obama held the news conference in the midst of a modestly improving economy. But international challenges as well as a stubbornly depressed housing market remain threats to the current recovery and to his presidency.

Obama has not held a full news conference since November. The White House scheduled this one on the same day as the 10-state Super Tuesday Republican presidential nominating contests. While aides insisted the timing was coincidental, it follows a pattern of Obama seeking the limelight when the attention is on the GOP.

The news conference comes amid a new sense of optimism at the White House. Obama’s public approval ratings have inched up close to 50 percent. The president recently won an extension of a payroll tax cut that was a main element of his jobs plan for 2012. Economic signals suggest a recovery that is taking hold.

Still, he will probably face questions about the pace of the recovery. The unemployment rate in January was 8.3 percent, the highest it has been in an election year since the Great Depression. With rising gasoline prices threatening to slow the economy, Obama has also faced attacks from Republicans over his energy policy.


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Iran’s nuclear ambitions will also command attention in the aftermath of his meeting Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Tension over Iran has already contributed to higher oil prices, and Israel’s threats of pre-emptive military strikes to prevent Tehran from building a nuclear bomb have dominated Washington discourse for weeks.

Other developments in the Middle East, where turmoil has soured some of the promise of last year’s Arab Spring, are also likely to be addressed. Syria’s bloody crackdown on protesters has increased pressure on Obama to intervene. Republican Sen. John McCain on Monday urged the United States to launch airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime to force him out of power.

Under the housing plans Obama was to announce Tuesday, FHA-insured borrowers would be able to refinance their loans at half the fee that the FHA currently charges. FHA borrowers who want to refinance now must pay a fee of 1.15 percent of their balance every year. Officials say those fees make refinancing unappealing to many borrowers. The new plan will reduce that charge to 0.55 percent.

With mortgage rates at about 4 percent, the administration estimates a typical FHA borrower with $175,000 still owed on a home could reduce monthly payments to $915 a month and save $100 a month more than the borrower would have under current FHA fees.

Though 2 million to 3 million borrowers would be eligible, the administration official would not speculate how many would actually seek to benefit from the program.

Past government initiatives aimed at the troubled housing market have fallen far short of expectations. The Obama administration’s signature foreclosure-prevention program, the $29 billion Home Affordable Modification Program, was started to help those with heavy debt loads avoid losing their homes. But it has failed to help more than half of the 1.7 million troubled homeowners who have applied to lower their mortgage payments on a permanent basis.

A separate plan, the Home Affordable Refinance Program, which allows borrowers with loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to refinance at lower rates, has helped about 1 million homeowners, well short of the 4 million to 5 million the administration had expected.

About a quarter of all U.S. homeowners, about 11 million, are underwater on their homes, owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, according to CoreLogic, a real estate data firm.

About 30 percent of home loans started last year were through the FHA. Many first-time homebuyers use these loans because they only require 3.5 percent of a home’s price as a down payment, instead of a typical 10 to 20 percent in the private mortgage market.

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