WASHINGTON - Relentlessly rising unemployment is triggering more home foreclosures, threatening the Obama administration's efforts to end the housing crisis and diminishing hopes the economy will rebound with vigor.
In past recessions, the housing industry helped get the economy back on track. Home builders ramped up production, expecting buyers to take advantage of lower prices and jump into the market. But not this time.
These days, homeowners who got fixed-rate prime mortgages because they had good credit can't make their payments because they're out of work. That means even more foreclosures and further declines in home values.
The initial surge in foreclosures in 2007 and 2008 was tied to subprime mortgages issued during the housing boom to people with shaky credit. That crisis has ebbed, but it has been replaced by more traditional foreclosures tied to the recession.
Unemployment stood at 9.5 percent in June and is expected to rise past 10 percent and well into next year. The last time the U.S. economy was mired in a recession with such high unemployment was 1981 and 1982.
But the home foreclosure rate then was less than one-fourth what it is today. Housing wasn't a drag on the economy, and when the recession ended, the boom was explosive.
No one is expecting a repeat. The real estate market is still saturated with unsold homes and homes that sell below market value because they are in or close to foreclosure.
"It just doesn't have the makings of a recovery like we saw in the early 1980s," says Wells Fargo Securities senior economist Mark Vitner, who predicts mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures won't return to normal levels for three more years.
Almost 4 percent of homeowners with a mortgage are in foreclosure, and 8 percent on top of that are at least a month behind on payments - the highest levels since the Great Depression.
Because home values have declined so dramatically, many people can't refinance. They owe far more to the bank than their properties are worth.
To combat the foreclosure crisis and help stabilize home prices, President Barack Obama launched an effort in March to help 9 million people avoid foreclosure by helping them refinance or modifying their loans to lower their payments.
But that's of no help to people who can't even afford the lower payments because they're making much less money or have lost their jobs altogether.
As of early July, about 160,000 borrowers were enrolled in three-month trials of loan modifications under the plan, according to preliminary figures from the Treasury Department.
Meanwhile, more than 1.5 million American households were threatened with losing their homes in the first six months of this year, foreclosure listing service RealtyTrac Inc. said Thursday.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.