WASHINGTON – To those on the front lines of the housing crisis, the Obama administration's pledge to spend $50 billion to combat foreclosures was a welcome change in the government's approach. But the actual plan won't be unveiled for at least a week and might not be enough to prevent the housing market's troubles from mushrooming further.

           Housing counselors say the government's response to a huge surge in defaults and foreclosures over the past two years has been a failure. They blame former President George W. Bush's administration for sticking with voluntary programs led by the mortgage industry and not committing public dollars to foreclosure prevention.

They are hoping President Barack Obama will have more success, especially as foreclosures continue to grow. A Credit Suisse report published late last year forecast up to 10 million foreclosures by 2012, depending on the severity of the recession.

         "The question is: Can we work to design a system where the banks recognize it's in their interest to avoid foreclosure?" Obama said Tuesday in Fort Myers, Fla., which has been devastated by foreclosures and sinking home prices.

          Obama said he would announce his housing strategy in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, home prices are not expected to hit bottom until year-end at the earliest.

A report published this month by Moody's Economey projected that home prices will plummet by at least 50 percent in more than 30 metro areas in California, Florida and Nevada by the time the housing bust ends. More than 60 percent of all metro areas nationally are expected to see prices fall by 10 percent or more, the study found.

While Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's revised plan to stabilize the financial system offered few details about housing on Tuesday, consumer advocates said they were still confident that the forthcoming proposal would offer far-reaching help to borrowers.

         "It's a tough problem," said Michael Calhoun, president of the Durham N.C.-based Center for Responsible Lending. "They want to make sure to get it right."

Less patient was Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. He issued a statement criticizing the administration for taking too long to put together a housing plan.

Frank also said he fears that $50 billion in funding "understates the amount that we will need" and called on lenders to halt foreclosures as the government develops its plans.

          The Obama administration is expected to back a push in Congress — opposed by the mortgage industry — to let bankruptcy judges alter the terms of primary home loans. Earlier this week, Obama said it "makes no sense" that judges are not allowed to do so. The mortgage industry argues that this prohibition allows lenders to charge lower rates.

           With limited resources, government aid should be targeted to the parts of the country that have been most severely crushed by the foreclosure crisis, said Deutsche Bank analyst Karen Weaver. Of the $50 billion, she said, "It's not a huge amount of money."

The administration has several ways to spend money on foreclosure prevention. It could follow a proposal by Sheila Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., who has outlined a way for the government to give banks an incentive to reduce borrowers' payments. Under that idea, the government would absorb some of the losses should the modified loans fail again.

          Or, the government could direct federal dollars to loan modifications. If a lender, for example, agreed to reduce a borrower's rate, the government could subsidize another interest rate drop.

But complicating matters, trillions of dollars in mortgages were divided up and sold as securities to investors around the world.

         "As long as we wait for these investors to do the right thing or somehow play nice, then we're just going to see more and more homeowners enter foreclosure," said Michael van Zalingen, director of homeownership services at Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago.

Still, consumer groups that felt shut out under the Bush administration say the Obama administration has welcomed their ideas.

         John Taylor, chief executive of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a consumer group in Washington, was scheduled to meet Wednesday with Geithner and Obama's housing secretary, Shaun Donovan. He has been pressing the administration to buy distressed loans in bulk so they can be refinanced at lower rates.

"The flavor has changed, and that's encouraging, but we need the meat on the bone here," Taylor said.

Meanwhile, with the recession worsening and layoffs mounting, time is running out for many borrowers.

Elliott Clark, 58, and his wife, Aquilla, 45, are almost four months behind on the mortgage on their three-bedroom house in Kansas City. Clark lost his job at a warehouse last fall. Because of a dispute with a prior employer, he says he was ruled ineligible for unemployment.

         His family has had to rely on his military disability payments and his wife's paycheck from a cleaning service. It's not enough to cover their $600-a-month mortgage. They owe more than $3,400.

A local nonprofit has helped find them a house to rent if they lose their house. But Clark says the family doesn't have money to move and is in danger of having his car repossessed.

"No matter what, I'm going to be stuck between a rock and a hard place, unless they say the banks can't foreclose on anyone for a while until things get better," he said. "I keep praying." 

Barack Obama attempts to hush the crowd as he takes stage at a town hall meeting in Florida. Reuters
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