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Why Is the Treasury Not Releasing Data on Who’s Getting Loans?

by Ngoc Nguyen

At the end of this month, for the first time ever, the US Treasury plans to release to the public a treasure trove of demographic information on people who have received loan modifications. That is, if the government releases the information as promised – information that has a critical impact on policies that prevent home foreclosures.

So far, the Treasury has stalled on making this key information available, despite requests by housing and consumer advocacy groups and media organizations, including New America Media, under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Loan modifications are changes made to the terms of a home loan and could include such things as being granted a different interest rate, a principal reduction, or a decrease in how often the loan must be paid off.

Housing advocates say they have been waiting for the Treasury to the release the information for more than a year.

National Consumer Law Center attorney Geoffry Walsh, whose organization filed a FOIA at the end of 2009, says the Treasury still hasn’t provided the information. Walsh says his group requested data detailing why borrowers were denied loan modifications.

“There were promises from the FOIA people that they would be sending [the data]…and that just went on and on for months,” he said. “They sent a few relevant things, but nothing substantial pertaining to what we asked for.”

New America Media first asked the Treasury for race and ethnicity data of those who received loan modifications under President Obama’s Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) last September. A Treasury spokesperson said the information would be released at the end of October. The release date was then pushed back to November. New America Media submitted a FOIA request last November, and is still waiting for the requested data. The Treasury now promises to release the data by the end of the month.

“Any delay in publishing the file is to ensure all proper precautions have been taken to protect homeowner privacy - our utmost concern,” Treasury spokesperson Andrea Risotto, said in an emailed reply to New America Media.

For housing advocates, the delay means not having access to critical data that could shed light on who’s getting loan modifications, which has been the key policy for preventing foreclosures, according to Kevin Stein, associate director of the San Francisco-based California Reinvestment Coalition.

The number of foreclosures nationally continues to rise and Stein believes they could reach 12 million by 2013.

“Many people will still need help,” Stein says, “and [loan modifications are] still the main way people will get help.” But, there’s little public information about who is getting the loan modifications and the terms of the deal, “except [what is] in the hands of the banks.”

According to Stein, in much the same way that demographic information on lending has revealed racial disparities, the HAMP data could be used to ensure fair housing laws are not being violated. The HAMP data has limitations though, as 80 percent of loan medications occur outside of the program, Stein said, citing figures by bank regulators.

Walsh of the National Consumer Law Center says his organization was denied a request for information about a calculator that loan servicers use to determine who qualifies for a loan modification. The calculator, referred to as a net present value (NPV) calculator, takes inputs such as the borrower’s income, property value, length of time behind on payments, credit score, and modification amount and “shows if the investor would do better under the loan modification or by foreclosing,” Walsh said.

The request was denied on the grounds that it was proprietary information. “Basically, they said it belongs to Fannie Mae and private businesses,” Walsh said. “We don’t agree with that.” The group appealed the decision, but the appeal was also denied. “Under HAMP rules, if the NPV test shows that the loan modification is the better option, the servicer has to do the loan modification, they can’t foreclose,” he added.

Homeowners have expressed frustration with the lack of transparency on the part of the bank, while trying to modify home loans with their lenders. Walsh says at least two changes set to begin next month will offer homeowners more transparency about their loan modification process.

As a part of the Wall Street Reform Act of 2010, banks will be required to list the figures that they used in the NPV calculator in denial letters to homeowners. In addition, Walsh says, the Treasury has said it will make the calculators available in the spring. That too, remains to be seen.

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