Viewpoint: Obama's Drop-in-the-Bucket Idea for Housing

Ann Brenoff

Let's hold off blaring the triumphant trumpets just yet for President Obama's plan to allow holders of underwater loans to refinance at a lower rate through revisions in the Home Affordable Refinance Program.

What this change does is amend the loan-to-value ratio in a refinance. By removing the cap on how upside-down you can be, it will allow more people to avail themselves of the lower interest rates out there. You still will owe more than your house is worth, but you can pay less for the privilege.

Here's what the proposed plan doesn't do:

1. Reach many people.

The only homeowners who will qualify are those who are current on their underwater loans and have loans that are backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. (No jumbo loan holders or those with mortgages backed by the FHA or the USDA.) That's an estimated 800,000 homeowners who can avail themselves of this. To put things in perspective, most experts say there are between 8 million and 9 million people in the foreclosure pipeline -- and some put that number as high as 11 million. So 800,000 is hardly a game-changing number.

It is, perhaps somewhat ironically, about the same number of homeowners that HARP has helped to date. When the program was announced in 2009, we were told it would help 4 to 5 million underwater borrowers. To date, just 838,000 homeowners have been able to refinance through HARP. So even if this new tweak doubles the number of people helped, it's still just a fraction of the number of people in trouble.