When President Barack Obama announced his Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan earlier this year, he said the measure would help up to 9 million families facing foreclosure to stay in their homes. The plan, which went into effect three months ago, would allow three to four million families to modify their payments, which was especially welcome news for African-Americans, who have been steered toward higher mortgage loans and disproportionately affected by the foreclosure crisis. But there have been pitfalls along the way. Although filings decreased 6 percent in the past month, the number of homes facing foreclosure—321,480 in May 2009—is still staggering. Many banks and mortgage lenders are understaffed and unprepared to deal with the high demand for modifications so far. Congressman Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland has a plan that just might work. He has urged President Obama to consider new options for struggling homeowners like drafting legislation that would reallocate TARP funds given to banks and paid back to the government, for short-term loans to help unemployed homeowners. ESSENCE.com talked to Cummings about the kinks in the President’s current plan, his proposed solution and why American homeowners deserve more help.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you think is the biggest problem with President Obama’s mortgage plan?
CONGRESSMAN ELIJAH E. CUMMINGS: What the President is trying to do is get people to have loans that are reasonable, so they can pay the money back. But if you have no job, then it becomes almost impossible. In the vast majority of modifications that have been done people have defaulted again.
ESSENCE.COM: The Obama administration predicted that his plan would allow 3 to 4 million people to modify their homes. Given the rising unemployment rate, is that estimate too high?
CUMMINGS: Well, that’s going to be very difficult. My Congressional office recently held a foreclosure prevention conference. We had 1,000 people come out to meet with 19 lenders—Citigroup, Countrywide and others. It was far more successful than I ever imagined it would be. Let’s say, for example, there was a two-income family and the husband lost his job. It was easy to help those people. The lenders came through. In most instances they reduced the interest rate, and if that didn’t help then they reduced the principal. We were able to help at least 500 or 600 people out of that 1,000. The only people that we found difficult to help were those that didn’t have jobs.
ESSENCE.COM: And for these people, you’ve proposed a bailout?
CUMMINGS: What I want the President to do is take a portion of the $68 billion of TARP money that’s going to be paid back to set up a short-term loan program for people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. They would pay back what they can afford, and the government would give them a short-term loan to supplement it. It would be for a limited time, with the assumption that the economy’s going to get better and these people are going to be able to get a job.
ESSENCE.COM: What if they don’t find a job?
CUMMINGS: Well, then the government would have to extend those loans. Keep in mind what we’ve done for the banking community and car companies. We’ve literally taken the taxpayers dollars and given them away to these corporations—many of whom helped cause the economic downturn that we have. On the other hand, we’ve got people—hardworking people—who normally pay their bills, who have lost their jobs. Now they find themselves in these difficult circumstances.
ESSENCE.COM: I can already hear critics saying that they don’t want to hand out money to help other people stay afloat.
CUMMINGS: Well, we already did. We did it for the banks. We did it for AIG. Why can’t you do it for these people who lost their jobs? Property values go down when a house is foreclosed. So this is a way of trying to help stabilize the value of people’s houses when so many people are underwater. A house is probably the greatest investment that most families will make in a lifetime. If we can save Wall Street, then we’ve got to be able to save Main Street.