ANGELA DELLI SANTI
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) â¿¿ The Christie administration believes it has made it easier for New Jersey homeowners facing foreclosure to qualify for federal aid, but those on the front lines say problems remain.
The New Jersey HomeKeeper Program had closed 56 loans and distributed only a fraction of the $300 million in available aid through January. But Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable told Assembly members Wednesday that the program has been overhauled to fix application processing waits of six months or longer and ease qualification rules that caused 68 percent of initial applicants to be turned away.
The program provides zero-interest, deferred payment mortgage loans of up to $48,000 to homeowners who have a track record of making their mortgage payments but are struggling because of unemployment or underemployment.
Constable acknowledged during 90 minutes of testimony before two Assembly panels that the administration had made mistakes while ramping up the program starting early in 2011, but has beefed up staff, revised the qualifications three times and improved program management. He also shielded Gov. Chris Christie from blame, saying the governor was not directly aware of the program's early failings.
New Jersey's 7.7 percent foreclosure rate is the second highest in the country.
Constable's synopsis of recent progress â¿¿ "we closed more loans last week than we closed last year" and are on pace to disperse all available funds next year â¿¿ echoed the critique Christie offered on Tuesday.
"Let's face it, we're not going to do everything perfectly in this administration, that's just the way it is," the governor said in response to a question about the hearing while in New Brunswick. "When we identify a shortcoming, we fix it."
Christie acknowledged the money was slow to be dispensed at first but said that was due to inadequate staffing and a Supreme Court moratorium on foreclosures, which made the problem less immediate. Plus, he said, the administration wanted to guard against fraud.