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The financial crisis caused millions of Americans to lose their homes. At the time there were complaints that the government was doing more to prop up big banks than to help average people. As we're about to hear there is a government program to help homeowners save money by refinancing their mortgages. It's still available. A million homeowners could still take advantage of it. Here's NPR's Chris Arnold.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: At a recent event at a church in Atlanta, former Congressman Mel Watt laid out the numbers. The refinancing program saves people who take advantage of it an average of $200 a month. But the program could still reach a lot more people.
MEL WATT: Somebody going to give me $2,400 a year or more? And I'm going to turn it down?
ARNOLD: Watt recently became the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. And so, he oversees this so-called HARP refinancing program. But he says some Americans who hear about this think it sounds kind of fishy.
WATT: If you're paying your mortgage, you're current on your mortgage and somebody calls you on the phone and says you are eligible to refinance your mortgage and save $2,400 a year, what would you think? Oh, no. All these scams that we've heard about, this cannot be true.
ARNOLD: But Watt says it is true. In fact about 3 million Americans so far have already refinanced through HARP. And so Mel Watt is speaking to community leaders in cities around the country to encourage more people to apply.
WATT: There's 800,000 more families nationwide that would benefit from the HARP program, if they would just step forward.
BOB WALTERS: Especially since interest rates have dropped some over the last number of months, it's even become that much more advantageous.
ARNOLD: That Bob Walters, he's the chief economist with Quicken Loans. His company was aggressive early on trying to qualify homeowners for the HARP program back after it was launched 5 years ago. But he says there's another reason that many people aren't taking advantage of it.
WALTERS: You get denied maybe once or twice and then all of the sudden you say, I can't qualify.
ARNOLD: Walters says for a while the rules about who could qualify for the HARP refi program excluded a lot of people. Chris Mayer, a housing economist at Columbia University agrees. He says HARP in its first couple of years could've reached a lot more people if it was better designed.
CHRIS MAYER: There've been people who lost their homes to foreclosures that were otherwise preventable. I've done calculations that would suggest that as many as 500,000 people could've stayed in their homes.
ARNOLD: But that was then and now the roles are different and Bob Walters says that homeowners who want to save some money on their mortgage should give HARP a shot, even if they applied a couple years ago and couldn't qualify.
WALTERS: Because the program has changed so much and has gotten so much more flexible, the opportunity for people to get approved is much higher but they don't know that.
ARNOLD: Getting back to those scams that Mel Watt referred to, you should know that it doesn't cost anything to find out if you qualify for HARP. Any reputable lender can tell you that free of charge, you do need to have gotten your loan back before 2010. Meanwhile, Mel Watt is planning to visit Detroit and Miami in coming months to reach out to more homeowners. Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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