Bush touts his approach to help homeowners

March 28, 2008 6:26:32 PM PDT
President Bush visited New Jersey on Friday to tout his approach to assist struggling homeowners, who he said sometimes need "just a little help." Meanwhile, Democrats urged the president to endorse their housing assistance proposal, which would let bankruptcy judges lower payments for homeowners staring at foreclosure.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Bush should lean on congressional Republicans to allow votes on the Democratic measure.

"The administration refuses to step up to the plate and do what's needed," Schumer, chairman of the congressional Joint Economic Committee, told reporters in a conference call. "The administration joined by (congressional Republicans) in their Herbert Hoover-like attitude of do nothing, twiddle your thumbs while the economy gets worse, especially in the housing area, is not going to sit well with the American public."

His comments came as Bush paid a quick visit to a nonprofit debt counseling center in Freehold Township, N.J., to refute exactly that sort of criticism and argue that his administration has acted effectively.

The administration's moves over the past about six months include expanding the Federal Housing Administration's ability to offer refinancing to homeowners with good credit, allowing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy up more home loans, and brokering help for struggling homeowners through a private-sector mortgage industry group, Hope Now. That group has agreed to offer a five-year rate freeze for people who have not missed payments or a 30-day foreclosure pause for those who fall behind.

Bush urged people in trouble to call the group's telephone hotline, 1-888-995-HOPE, which connects homeowners with centers like Novadebt, the one Bush visited.

"There are some homeowners who have made responsible buying decisions and who could keep their homes with just a little help," he said.

Hope Now officials said they have worked with lenders to help process nearly 1,500 repayment plans in New Jersey.

The president met with two homeowners who benefited from the program. One of them, Danny Cerchiaro of Iselin, said his mortgage payment was scheduled to jump from $2,000 a month to $3,000. But with help from Novadebt he was able to reduce his monthly payment to $1,800.

"I had a perfect credit record, and I wanted to keep it that way," Cerchiaro said.

The president flew to Freehold Township aboard Marine One from McGuire Air Force Base for the afternoon event and returned to Washington afterward.

The president has come out strongly against the Democrats' housing package, warning that an overzealous governmental response to the nation's housing woes could hurt the economy's ability to recover long-term. Bush did not again explicitly reject the Democratic ideas on Friday, but implied that Washington should act only carefully.

"We have a role to play at the government level, and that is to help lenders and borrowers work together to avoid foreclosure," he said. "The housing market problems are complicated and there's no easy solutions. But ... we will help responsible homeowners weather a difficult period."

Bush wants Congress to approve a broad mortgage reform package that would lower the down-payment requirements for FHA-insured loans and expand the FHA's use of risk-based premium pricing.

Democrats are planning a test vote Tuesday on their measure, which would also let localities with the highest foreclosure rates access federal grants to buy foreclosed properties and provide $200 million in counseling to distressed borrowers.

The proposal fell well short of the 60 votes it would have needed to advance when the Senate took it up last month, with all but one Republican opposing it.

--- Associated Press writer Jennifer Loven contributed to this report from Freehold, N.J.