Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ahead of the Bell: Senate's Mortgage Fix

AP - WASHINGTON

The Senate could begin debating Tuesday another round of remedies for homeowners caught in the worsening housing crisis. Senators may vote this week on a package of legislative proposals, designed by Democrats, that includes easing bankruptcy rules and boosting funds for foreclosure-prevention counseling. The proposed revision to the U.S. bankruptcy code would allow judges to cut interest rates and reduce what's owed on troubled borrowers' mortgages. At stake are potentially millions of dollars of profits for mortgage lenders, which have been lobbying against the measure. Their opposition is echoed by many Republican lawmakers. Consumer advocates, meanwhile, are pushing senators to approve the change. Currently, lenders can foreclose against a homeowner in default on a primary residence 90 days after a bankruptcy filing, and judges have no authority to order changes in mortgage terms.

The Mortgage Bankers Association has said the proposal would hurt more borrowers in the long run by requiring "higher interest rates and larger down payments to offset the risk" of bankruptcy court intervention for some homeowners. The measure is expected to face tougher resistance than the recently approved economic stimulus package, which narrowly touched on the mortgage crisis. Democratic backers consider the new legislation a way to make up for shortcomings in the Bush administration plan to freeze interest rates on a relatively small percentage of loans made to high-risk borrowers.

Monday brought more evidence of the housing sector's ills. The National Association of Realtors reported that sales of existing homes fell to the lowest level in nearly a decade in January while the median price for a home dropped for the fifth straight month. "Today's dismal housing news reinforces the need for congressional Republicans to join Democrats to address the bulls-eye of our economic troubles by passing a housing recovery package this week," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "The housing crisis has mushroomed in part due to Washington's inaction, and declining home values cut to the very heart of families' sense of financial security and our economy's overall health." Also included in the Senate package is a measure mandating $200 million for foreclosure-prevention counseling services -- a near doubling of funds already committed by Congress -- and an allowance for states to issue more tax-exempt bonds so that housing agencies could help homeowners refinance high-cost mortgages.

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