‘Underwater’ homeowners still need help with mortgages

The housing market is booming, with rising home prices and rents and plenty of new construction. Or is it?

In many NYC neighborhoods, tens of thousands of homeowners aren’t seeing that bright version of the market. In some, more than 20 percent of homeowners remain “underwater” — when their mortgages surpass the value of their homes — according to a study by the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, an affordable housing advocacy group. Many are in minority and low-income neighborhoods, pockets that remain untouched by the housing rebound. The domino effect is extensive, as whole neighborhoods wallow in economic distress, with business activity stagnant and some homes ending up in foreclosure.

This is a frightening problem. There’s no easy solution. Many think that seven years after the toxic mix of unaffordable mortgages, a collapsing economy and sagging home prices pummeled the region, the problem’s been solved. But it remains, disproportionately hitting black homeowners in areas like southeast Queens, the study found.

The state attorney general, along with nonprofit programs and housing counselors, are trying to help. But it’s not enough, and we must look for new, creative solutions.

In some cases, homeowners don’t know their options; in others, counselors have tried but failed to reach them.

If you’re underwater or in foreclosure, there’s free, safe assistance out there for you. But in communities with few banks, and where scam mailings come more often than legitimate ones, it’s hard to know whom to trust. Housing counselors and legal or financial advisers must reach out more, perhaps with a grander, easily identified campaign that clearly shows how to get help. City officials can reach neighborhoods and homeowners. Financial institutions must make getting help easier and faster. It’s particularly tough to assist those with loans from the Federal Housing Administration or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, because homeowners with those loans often can’t get mortgage principal reductions. Officials must try to ease those restrictions.

This isn’t easy. But we must help homeowners and communities to rebuild and find paths to economic recovery.