WASHINGTON Be ready to wait if you want to get information from a toll-free hotline about freezing the interest rate on your subprime mortgage.
Minutes after President Bush outlined a plan to help strapped homeowners, callers were told to have patience until a counselor could answer their questions and "devote as much time to you as necessary."
But once they do get through, homeowners may not find the answers they sought.
One caller to the hotline (1-888-995-HOPE) was told there would be "lots of hoops to jump through" to obtain the five-year freeze. The rate hold goes to the heart of the relief effort for people with subprime mortgages, which are loans offered to borrowers with tarnished credit or low incomes.
Even Bush acknowledged the plan is "no perfect solution." Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said it was not a "silver bullet."
Only a fraction of the homeowners who face huge jumps in their mortgage payments appear likely to be helped by the plan, negotiated by the Bush administration, to freeze the low introductory rates on their subprime loans for five years. After that, they could be in the same position again.
Homeowners dialing up their mortgage company to get their current rate frozen could be disappointed. The White House plan does not force mortgage companies to give eligible homeowners a break. It is voluntary.
The White House on Friday defended the system and its eligibility requirements.
"I wouldn't call them 'hoops,"' White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said. "I think we are trying to make sure, as we outlined yesterday, that we're getting at the right population that can best be served by this program."
Bush promoted the initiative Friday for the second day in a row, using his weekly radio address to call it "an example of the government bringing together members of the private sector to voluntarily address a national challenge without taxpayer subsidies or government mandates." The president taped his address for airing today, and the White House released the transcript on Friday.
In first announcing the initiative on Thursday, Bush said 1.2 million people could be eligible for relief. Aid includes the rate freeze and helping people refinance into more affordable mortgages. The Center for Responsible Lending, a group that promotes homeownership and works to curb predatory lending, estimates that just 145,000 families will qualify for the rate freeze. The criteria are too strict, it says.
The White House plan is aimed at stemming foreclosures, which have shot up to record highs as the housing market has gone from boom to bust.
Subprime borrowers have been hardest hit by the meltdown. Initially low interest rates that reset to much higher rates have clobbered those borrowers.