TALLAHASSEE – Florida would have been eligible for as much as $250 million in the expansion of the federal Hardest Hit Fund, but chose not to apply for any money, a decision that has disappointed and baffled consumer advocates.
“I’m so disappointed that we didn’t take the money,” Alice Vickers, director of the Florida Alliance for Consumer Protection told the Florida Record. “It’s been very disappointing for all of us who work in this area.”
The news that the state declined to apply for more money came only months after a report by the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program found that Florida was worst in the nation when it came to accepting applicants for aid through the Hardest Hit Fund and for the amount of money it disbursed. The fund was created in 2010 after the housing crash.
Despite a call for the state to increase its spending, it appears not much has changed, Vickers said.
“To my knowledge, it hasn’t appreciably sped up,” she said. “Since they first instituted the program, they’ve tinkered with it to speed it up, but I don’t think there’s been any appreciable increase in spending down the money.”
The slowness of spending and the higher rate of rejections – the report found that only 20 percent of homeowners who applied were accepted into the program, compared to more than 50 percent for the other 19 states participating in the program – were criticized by the report, which suggested the U.S. Treasury Department, which administers the funds, should offer more oversight and push the state to do more. That has led to people losing their homes, Vickers said, especially subprime borrowers who were hardest hit at the beginning of the housing crisis.
“It has helped some people, but not nearly the number that we had hoped or that have been helped in other states,” she said. “Because initially the program was so narrowly defined, there were so many people in the first several years that could have been helped with a more robust program that have now long since lost their homes and moved on.”
The state hasn’t offered a reason for not applying for more money, but Vickers said it likely had to do with Gov. Rick Scott’s preference not to take federal money. That reluctance was evident from the very beginning, she said, including in the way the program was so narrowly started in the beginning.
Despite the governor’s preferences and the slow pace of spending, having access to the additional federal money would have likely helped homeowners, she said.
“The program was extended through 2020, so there was always the opportunity to revise the program, to make it more beneficial to those homeowners who are currently having trouble paying their mortgages, so I think, obviously, with the right plan, the money could have been used to help homeowners in Florida," Vickers said. "It’s a big pot to have lost. (The Treasury Department) is constantly revising the parameters, so between now and 2020 there could be more ways that they could allow the money to be used. But that’s not an option if you don’t have the money at all.”