Just don't call it a subprime loan

Obie, right, and Pattie Sibug stand in their San Diego home. They would like to buy their San Diego townhouse, which they are renting for $1,750 a month. They are among those who may benefit from a proposed subprime mortgage program.
Obie, right, and Pattie Sibug stand in their San Diego home. They would like to buy their San Diego townhouse, which they are renting for $1,750 a month. They are among those who may benefit from a proposed subprime mortgage program. Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/MCT

With home prices rising, interest rates falling and builders building, some prominent housing advocates are calling for a new kind of loan for buyers with lower incomes or bad credit.

They'd like to call it the Dignity Mortgage, but it has another name - one that's become more of an epithet since the housing crash: subprime.

Applicants might include people caught in the early stages of the mortgage meltdown who have since rebuilt their finances, said Faith Bautista, who heads the National Asian American Coalition.

"They lost their work, their homes and their credit scores four or five years ago," Bautista said.

Since then, she said, many have found new jobs and saved up enough for a 10 percent down payment. But they can't get a loan because lending standards remain tight, even for the Federal Housing Administration mortgages designed to help lower-income borrowers, Bautista said.

The proposal starts with the classic subprime trade-off: a higher rate for a higher-risk clientele. Borrowers would pay 1.25 percentage points above the going interest rate, maybe 4.75 percent if more creditworthy borrowers were paying 3.5 percent.

But the deal would get better if borrowers made timely payments for five years. At that point, the extra money they had paid in interest would be used to reduce the mortgage balance, and their rate would be cut to whatever borrowers with sterling credit and 20 percent down payments were charged at the time the loan was made.

Pattie Sibug of San Diego is among those who got caught short by the housing crash. By early 2010, the property improvement company she and her husband had owned for a dozen years had already seen its business fall off. Then a stream of work repairing foreclosed homes for a big bank dried up. BID Construction wound up owing suppliers about $60,000 it could never fully repay, which ultimately ruined the couple's personal and business credit scores. "It was 585 the last time I checked," Sibug said of her score.

Sibug and her husband, Ollie, would like to buy the town house they are renting for $1,750 a month, and could come up with a 10 percent down payment. But they had to decline the owner's recent offer to sell because they knew they couldn't get financing.

"There's got to be some kind of program to help you re-establish yourself," Sibug said. "I'd be the first person in line if there was."

Situations like hers are why Bautista and other activists have been talking to bankers and regulators, proposing the new type of loan. Those activists include Bob Gnaizda, a longtime minority rights attorney who co-founded the Greenlining Institute in Berkeley, Calif., and financial literacy activist John Bryant, whose Operation Hope - founded in South Los Angeles after the 1992 riots - now operates nationally and in South Africa and Haiti.

The proposal comes as home lenders remain besieged by demands that they pay billions of dollars in damages for defaulted housing-boom loans. Regulators have required banks to increase reserves against losses.

And the lenders also are evaluating new mortgage rules from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which they say will determine how freely they can lend.

In reaction, many banks have imposed higher standards for writing new home loans than those required by the FHA or by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the finance outfits that have kept the mortgage market afloat since the financial crisis - thanks to $137 billion in taxpayer assistance.

Edward J. Pinto, a former Fannie Mae chief credit officer who argues that lax FHA lending helped feed the foreclosure crisis in low-income neighborhoods, said the Dignity Mortgage proposal "is a stupid and crazy idea - a poison pill."

"Haven't we learned anything from the cratering of our housing finance market?" said Pinto, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank.

Bank officials continue their soul-searching over the mortgage misdeeds of the past and the prospects of the business.

"By being overly aggressive, the entire housing system caused a great deal of damage to the very people we were trying to help attain homeownership," said Brian T. Moynihan, chief executive of Bank of America Corp.

That lesson has been especially painful for Bank of America, which has recorded more than $40 billion in mortgage-related losses since acquiring risky mortgage specialist Countrywide Financial Corp. of Calabasas, Calif., once the nation's largest home lender, in 2008.

"There are very real concerns that a too-high standard can lock some people out of homeownership - something we don't want," Moynihan said in a speech to a Brookings Institution housing forum last month.

"How do we make credit available but protect people from taking on too much risk and ending up in a home they can't afford? And how do we strike the right balance between prudent underwriting, responsible down payments and access to homeownership?" Moynihan asked.

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