California Offers Mortgage Assistance to Help Families Keep Their Homes

Hundreds of distressed homeowners line up in a crowded gymnasium in Compton, Calif., desperate for solutions to the foreclosure crisis.

Community leaders and bank officials sit at card tables, answering questions in an attempt to provide answers.

In California, this scene is all too familiar. Though national unemployment ticked down for the third month in a row to 8.9 percent, foreclosures accounted for nearly 44 percent of California home sales in 2010, and so far there has been little relief on the horizon for those who cannot pay their mortgages.

However, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel for 100,000 homeowners who are struggling to make ends meet as state officials plan to give up to six months of mortgage assistance to qualified applicants as part of a new state program.

“It would be a very, very substantial help,” says homeowner Joe Chavez, who came with his wife to the community event armed with a thick folder full of home mortgage documents, hoping to find a way to keep his house.

Chavez, a former cable contractor who was laid off last year, believes that having the state make his mortgage payments temporarily could buy him enough time.

“This would give us at least a chance to -- a little chance to -- breathe while I get employed again.”

As part of the program, Keep Your Home California, the state plans to hand out $2 billion, with a $50,000 maximum benefit to any one homeowner.

But real estate and business experts wonder whether this expenditure will be money well spent.

“We are a very struggling real estate market. We have a very high unemployment rate, high duration of unemployment and putting $2 billion dollars into the hands of homeowners isn’t necessarily the best thing for our overall economy,” says Paul Habibi, the associate director for the University of California Los Angeles’ Ziman Center for Real Estate, who adds six months may not give those who are unemployed enough time to find a new job.

The average job search in the state is taking eight months. The money for the program comes from leftover TARP funds, which the state government must either use now or pay back to the federal government.

Many program administrators say that is a good enough reason to try and help as many people as possible, even though it might not solve the problem altogether.

“We do think the problem is bigger than a $2 billion problem. There is no doubt about it,” says Diane Richardson of the California Housing Finance Agency.

“There are a lot of homeowners in California that are in trouble, but we think helping 100,000 homeowners is not an insignificant number.”