WASHINGTON Democrats pushed a $15 billion housing bill through a House committee Wednesday, over the objections of Republicans who called it a government bailout.
The measure would send federal loans and grants to cities and counties hit hardest by the housing crisis so they could buy and fix up foreclosed properties. It passed the Financial Services Committee 38-26, mostly along party lines.
Democrats said it would prevent blight in distressed neighborhoods, but the Bush administration and Republicans view it as a government giveaway for lenders and speculators that could lead to even more foreclosures.
The plan is designed to complement a broader housing overhaul package whose centerpiece would let hundreds of thousands of struggling homeowners refinance into more affordable, government-insured loans. That bill is expected to get a committee vote next week, and both measures are slated to move through the House the week after.
The bill approved Wednesday would provide $15 billion half in loans and half in grants to states with high foreclosure rates. Money would go to the most populous cities and counties based on their foreclosure rates, and to smaller towns that are severely affected. Priority would be given to helping low- and middle-income neighborhoods and targeted to aiding the poorest people and those who have already lost their homes to foreclosure.
"There is such a pressing need for the economic stimulus that would be provided" by the bill, said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., its sponsor. "These abandoned and foreclosed properties drag down the value of the homes still occupied by working families."
Republicans said the measure was too costly and wouldn't help homeowners.
"The principal beneficiaries of this type of plan would be private lenders who now own the vacant and foreclosed properties," said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.
It "may only serve to prolong our current housing problems," she added.
The measure could become ensnared in a broader partisan dispute over whether to provide another economic rescue package on the heels of the tax-rebate plan President Bush signed in February. Democrats contend a "second stimulus" including such items as housing assistance, a jobless benefits extension, and food and heating aid for the poor is needed. But Bush and congressional Republicans are loath to embrace more spending.
Only three Republicans two from Ohio, stricken with one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country crossed party lines to back the plan.
The rest of the housing package, on the other hand, could draw more Republican support.
Its main element is a proposal by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the House Financial Services Committee chairman, to expand the Federal Housing Administration to help financially strapped homeowners who otherwise wouldn't qualify for government-backed loans refinance into cheaper fixed-rate mortgages.
Under the plan, the FHA would take on up to $300 billion in new mortgages for financially strapped borrowers who could show they could afford a new mortgage. Lenders would first have to agree to take substantial losses on the existing loans so the homeowners could refinance.
The Financial Services panel also approved a bill Wednesday designed to encourage lenders to help struggling homeowners transition into more affordable mortgages.
The bipartisan measure by Reps. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., and Paul E. Kanjorski, D-Pa., would shield mortgage holders from legal liability if they took a loss to allow a borrower to refinance. It's designed to address a fear among those who bundle mortgages into securities that investors will sue them if they modify the loans.
That bill is also expected to move through the House the week of May 5.