Florida target of federal campaign touting refinance program


The Federal Housing Finance Agency is targeting Florida in a campaign touting a years-old mortgage savings program that officials say homeowners aren’t aware of and don’t understand.

The campaign, announced last week, will publicize the 2009 Home Affordable Refinance Program, or HARP, which can be used to refinance underwater mortgages into lower interest rates. On average, homeowners using HARP save more than $250 per month, or $3,000 per year, according to the agency.

But more than four years into the program, and with a pending 2015 expiration, about half of the 5 million homeowners expected to be helped have enrolled.

“I do talk to clients about HARP and none of them ever know anything about it,” said Lynn Drysdale, an attorney with Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. “Unless people contact a housing counselor or an attorney, they probably wouldn’t know about it.”

About 2.8 million homeowners nationwide have refinanced through HARP. That includes 254,102 in Florida.

A report last month from the inspector general of the Federal Housing Finance Agency said borrowers confuse HARP with other government foreclosure prevention programs, and that people assume they aren’t eligible.

Also, some borrowers applied when HARP was first announced and eligibility was more restricted. Severely underwater homeowners — those who owe 25 percent or more on their mortgage than their home’s value — weren’t eligible initially.

HARP has since gone through two transformations and now accepts homeowners no matter how underwater they are.

“Under HARP 1.0, borrowers were rejected by lenders for various reasons that contribute to today’s confusion,” the report states. “This left many borrowers frustrated or under the mistaken impression that they were ineligible for HARP.”

The lack of awareness of government housing programs extends beyond HARP, Drysdale said. Most of her clients are also unaware of the $1 billion Hardest Hit Fund, which started supplementing mortgage payments for unemployed and underemployed homeowners statewide in 2011. The newest Hardest Hit program, which reduces principal amounts for borrowers who are current on their loans, began taking applications last Wednesday at 9 a.m. with a 25,000 person limit.

The program still hadn’t filled up by Tuesday morning.

“I tell as many people as I can that just because you didn’t get into a program the first time, don’t stop trying,” said Kevin Maher, community outreach director for West Palm Beach-based DebtHelper.com. “There is always something new popping up, or some change being made, that you might qualify for.”

The new HARP campaign will include advertising via social media, radio and public transportation.

To be eligible for a HARP refinance, the loan must be owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, and must have been sold to them before May 31, 2009. Homeowners also must be current on their mortgage payments and have less than 20 percent equity in their homes.

The new federal campaign includes a revamped HARP website at www.harp.gov.


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