WASHINGTON - Be ready to wait if you call the federal government's new telephone hotline for subprime-mortgage borrowers.
Minutes after President Bush outlined a plan on Thursday to help strapped homeowners, callers were told to have patience until a counselor could answer their questions.
Moreover, once they reach a counselor, homeowners may not find the answers they seek.
One caller to the hotline - 1-888-995-4673 - was told there would be "lots of hoops to jump through" to obtain the five-year freeze on mortgage interest rates that was negotiated between the Bush administration and the mortgage industry. The freeze 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.
Homeowners calling their mortgage companies directly 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 defended the system and its eligibility requirements yesterday.
"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 [Thursday], that we're getting at the right population that can best be served by this program."
Bush promoted the initiative yesterday, 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 yesterday.
In announcing the initiative 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, estimated that just 145,000 families will qualify for the rate freeze. The criteria are too strict, it said.
The White House plan is aimed at stemming foreclosures, which have shot to record highs as the housing market has gone from boom to bust.
Also yesterday, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd urged Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke to act forcefully to protect consumers as the central bank updates mortgage-lending rules.