WASHINGTON - Be ready to wait if you want to get information from a toll-free hot line 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 hot line - 1-888-995-4673 (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 President Bush acknowledged that 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, which was 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 Saturday airing, 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. Nearly two million adjustable-rate subprime mortgages will reset from introductory rates of around 7 percent to 8 percent to much higher rates this year and next. That raises the specter of even more people being forced out of their homes because they cannot keep up with their monthly payments.
Rising home foreclosures are a headache for politicians and a danger for the economy.
Bush tried to shift blame for the crisis to the Democratic-led Congress.
"The Congress has not sent me a single bill to help homeowners," Bush said.
One measure would give the Federal Housing Administration more flexibility; a second would change the tax laws temporarily to help people who have a portion of their mortgage forgiven by banks.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) complained that the criteria for Bush's mortgage freeze are too narrow to help most distressed homeowners and worried that legal challenges by investors might stall the effort.
"While we certainly all hope this will be a shot in the arm for the housing slump, it is hardly a panacea," Schumer said. "There are too many families who may be left out, too much left up to the voluntary willingness of the private sector and too little disclosure and transparency to ensure families who do qualify are being helped."
Under the plan outlined Thursday, the rate freeze offer would be available only to people who have not missed any mortgage payments at their introductory interest rate. It also would apply only to loans taken out between 2005 and this past July 31 and scheduled to rise to higher rates in Jan. 1, 2008, and July 31, 2010. To make sure speculators don't get the break, the rate freeze offer applies only to people living in their homes.
The idea behind the administration-negotiated plan is that the five-year freeze will buy time for the housing sales and prices to start rising again. Such a rebound would enable homeowners to refinance their current adjustable rate mortgages into fixed-rate loans with more affordable monthly payments. But some people who want to buy homes and have been priced out of the market are upset that there's no help in sight for them.
Of the nearly three million subprime adjustable-rate loans surveyed by the Mortgage Bankers Association in the third quarter, a record, 18.81 percent of them were past due. A record, 4.72 percent of the loans entered into the foreclosure process during that period.
Meanwhile, there still is the possibility that investors, who were counting on bigger returns from the higher rate resets, will balk at extending the duration of the lower rate.
George Miller, executive director of the American Securitization Forum, whose members include investors, ratings agencies and other financial players, backed the White House's effort and developed streamlined procedures for lenders to follow when sorting through borrowers' requests for relief. He was hopeful lawsuits could be avoided, but he struck a note of caution.
"Certainly, there is no complete insulation from legal exposure," Miller said.