By Representative David Scott
A version of this column was submitted as part of the CBC weekly editorial.
Before President Obama took office, America was already in a recession. Four years later, we are finally seeing a gradual recovery with lower unemployment rates and better returns on retirement plans. Yet, we still see many communities struggling with mortgage foreclosure problems.
In the 1990s, we saw a big jump in the economic growth of metro Atlanta. For several decades, Georgia was living up to its unofficial motto as the "Empire State of the South." Now, Georgia ranks fourth in the nation for foreclosures and first in the nation for bank failures.
Georgia stands to receive a combined total of $526 million to assist struggling homeowners under both Treasury's Hardest Hit Fund and the national mortgage settlement. Yet, we unfortunately have encountered a lackadaisical attitude by the state in getting these funds out into our community and our economy. $339 million has already been received under the Hardest Hit Fund in Georgia. However, nearly all of those funds remain unspent a year after the state established the HomeSafe program to distribute this money. Georgia also stands to receive $186.7 million from the $25 billion national mortgage settlement reached earlier this year. Georgia has decided to use its first allocation of $104 million from the settlement for a slush fund and not to help struggling homeowners. This inaction means thousands of Georgians who are in need of assistance continue to suffer and risk losing their homes.
The Hardest Hit Fund was established in 2010 to help unemployed homeowners at risk of losing their homes. The program, which runs through 2017, essentially provides an 18-month mortgage-payment bridge while homeowners seek new or better employment. The goal is to save 18,000 Georgians from foreclosure. But since HomeSafe Georgia's official launch in April 2011, the state has awarded just $23 million, helping fewer than 1,000 Georgians keep their homes. So far, only around 900 have been aided by the program.
One reason for the slow start is that the state has not marketed the program. And of the people who have applied, too few meet the overly stringent guidelines the state established. The result is that the bulk of the money is sitting idle even as about 12,000 Georgians receive foreclosure notices each month. This does not help homeowners and it does not help the economy.
Home prices around Atlanta dropped more sharply than in other cities this past February, dragging the region's average to 1996 levels, according the Case-Shiller Home Price Indices report. About half of all Georgia home sales last year were foreclosed properties. At some point, foreclosures must bottom out and more people will need to be attracted to the low prices and low interest rates to consider homeownership over renting.
There are signs that the economic climate is improving. Georgia's unemployment rate dropped in March for the eighth straight month, falling to the lowest level since February 2009. The state's jobless rate declined to 9 percent in March, but still lags the national rate of 8.2 percent. Without more jobs, the foreclosure rate will not improve.
Just like my constituents of the 13th Congressional District of Georgia, I am frustrated by the slow and complex process to which homeowners in need are subjected in order to receive assistance, especially since many of them are currently close to losing their homes. For this reason, I am joining with the Department of Treasury and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to host our second annual foreclosure prevention event in Atlanta on June 1-2. You can watch a video invitation to the event at this link.
I will continue to use my position on the Financial Services Committee to fight for Americans who are struggling to pay their mortgages. Many of those currently underwater were approved for mortgages they could not afford at the time of signing, and more often than not their financial situations have worsened since then. We must aggressively fight for fairness and compassion in this economic climate, and put a stop to foreclosures if we are going to turn around the U.S. economy and get people back to work.