President Barack Obama's plan to aid millions of Americans who are at risk of losing their homes is getting a mixed review from state governors who gathered in Washington for a three-day meeting. A rash of home foreclosures helped plunge the United States into recession, and the national foreclosure rate shows few signs of subsiding.
Unveiled last week, the Obama plan encourages struggling homeowners to refinance their mortgages at a lower interest rate. If refinancing is not enough to prevent foreclosure, the plan provides a mechanism for lowering a homeowner's mortgage debt burden, and incentives for both lenders and borrowers to abide by the reworked agreement.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan says the plan will help honest Americans who have been hurt by the economic downturn, not real estate speculators whose investments turned sour when property values dropped.
Donovan spoke on CBS' Face the Nation program.
"What is really driving foreclosures is people losing their jobs. We have millions of families across this country that, through no fault of their own, are in trouble on their mortgages. We are going to stop speculators from getting in the plan [benefiting]," said Donovan. "But we have to make sure that folks who have played by the rules and are struggling can get some help."
Total costs for the plan are estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Although home foreclosures hurt the national economy as a whole, they are particularly worrisome to state and local governments, many of which rely on property taxes for revenue. Foreclosures tend to depress housing values for entire neighborhoods, and lower assessed values mean lower tax receipts.
But while America's state governors agree the housing crisis must not be allowed to fester, some are critical of the Obama administration's prescription for fixing the problem.
"I think it is a horrible idea," said Mark Sanford.
South Carolina's Republican Governor Mark Sanford says the administration's plan rewards irresponsible behavior. Sanford spoke on Fox News Sunday.
"About 95 percent of folks are playing by the rules and struggling, but still paying their mortgages," said Sanford. "The idea that somebody down the street gets a different system is something that, ultimately, is going to undermine a whole lot of other folks with regard to paying their mortgage."
Also appearing on Fox News Sunday, fellow-Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota said the federal government has no business restructuring private mortgage contracts.
"This notion where the government is going to step in and then forcibly reconfigure the terms of an existing contract should scare us," said Pawlenty.
But others say struggling homeowners must be helped for the same reason that failing banks must be rescued: to do otherwise invites economic catastrophe that harms everyone. Democratic Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania.
"If we do not do it, the whole system collapses. Every economist - conservative, liberal, moderate, progressive - says that we have got to do these bailouts, as bad [painful] as they are," said Rendell.
President Obama says his home foreclosure plan is one of three tools he will deploy to stabilize the U.S. economy. The other two are the stimulus plan he signed into law last week and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's initiative to save troubled U.S. financial institutions.