Federal aid doesn't go far in solving Valley's foreclosure crisis

A foreclosure sign is shown through a front gate of a home in Oakland, Calif.
A foreclosure sign is shown through a front gate of a home in Oakland, Calif. Paul Sakuma / AP

In California's San Joaquin Valley, lawmakers and homeowners still feel left out of the Obama administration's billion-dollar bids to ease the nation's foreclosure crisis.

The latest homeowner assistance program, unveiled with great fanfare, will spread $3 billion nationwide. But while California can expect at least $476 million of the total, the Valley's share remains both ambiguous and a source of heartburn.

"I would call it a drop in the bucket, but it's probably less than that," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.

Cardoza represents three cities — Stockton, Modesto and Merced — whose foreclosure rates consistently rank among the nation's highest. Add in Fresno and some smaller communities like Los Banos, and the greater San Joaquin Valley earns its title as Ground Zero for the housing bubble's violent bursting.

To help, Congress and the administration have opened up Uncle Sam's checkbook.

Most recently, the Treasury Department announced it will provide $2 billion nationwide for unemployed homeowners who need assistance paying their mortgage. The Department of Housing and Urban Development will provide an additional $1 billion in zero-interest loans for homeowners behind on their mortgage payments.

The latest programs succeed others whose focus and efficacy skeptics question.

"Doing this is better than nothing," Cardoza said, "but I have not been impressed by the way HUD manages their programs. Their track record has not been impressive."

A recurring complaint is that the San Joaquin Valley simply isn't getting its share.

Last year, the Neighborhood Stabilization Program provided $17 million to Fresno and Fresno County and $16 million to Modesto and Stanislaus County for the purchase of foreclosed, abandoned homes. Merced, despite its comparably serious foreclosure problem, was not deemed eligible for one of the initial grants; eventually, Merced and Merced County received $5 million distributed by the state.

No one yet knows exactly how the new assistance funds will be divvied up among local communities.

The new $1 billion HUD program will provide loans of up to $50,000 for homeowners who are at least three months delinquent in their mortgage payments. Officials announced Aug. 11 that the loans will assist those in "hard hit" areas, but they haven't yet defined "hard hit" nor decided specifically where the money will go.

"We're still determining how to target those funds," HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said Thursday, adding that "we don't want to raise expectations about where those funds will be (spent.)"

The $2 billion Treasury program announced Aug. 11 expands an existing "Hardest Hit Fund." This will include $476 million for the California Housing Finance Agency, which has designed several mortgage assistance programs that can provide up to $50,000 for low- and moderate-income households.

The California assistance could range from mortgage payment subsidies to paying off delinquent loans. State officials, though, caution that the final programs won't be ready until Nov. 1.

Fresno's Martha Lucey, who runs ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions, said she hopes these newest offerings prove more effective than their predecessors.

"We have not seen the success needle move," said Lucey, whose agency helps troubled homeowners throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

While Lucey acknowledged "a few thousand dollars can help a household stop a foreclosure," she stressed that any government aid will only prove temporary so long as homeowners are unemployed.

'It's all about jobs," Lucey said.

Atwater homeowner Renee Jones said she has been frustrated by federal mortgage assistance programs.

"The Making Home Affordable website is absolutely useless," said Jones, who struggles to afford her 53-year-old Atwater home. "Most of the programs there I don't qualify for."

Jones recently convinced her lender to modify her mortgage. But while that deal lowered her interest rate, it didn't reduce what she owes and it added past-due payments to her total debt.

Jones now owes $227,000 for her home, which Merced County's assessor says is worth about $70,000. She wonders why she shouldn't just default and move on.

"It's going to be 10 to 15 years before I have one cent in equity," Jones lamented. "To me it doesn't make sense to keep feeding and watering a dead horse."

Such "strategic defaults" are starting to proliferate in the Valley, Cardoza said. They are adding to the already complicated problem, which is difficult to measure.

Cardoza estimated nearly 30 percent of homeowners in his congressional district have lost their homes because they were foreclosed on, forced into "short sales" or voluntarily vacated in lieu of foreclosure.

Recently released Stanislaus County statistics show about 21,000 homes have been foreclosed since 2006, which is 12 percent to 15 percent of all homes, depending which housing unit estimates are used.

Cardoza estimates his staff still receives about 10 calls a week from people seeking mortgage help. Some of them are sobbing, but the congressman said his staff can't offer too much optimism about potential federal aid.

"We were giving people false hope," Cardoza said.