Editorial: Once more, homeowners are let down by state housing agency

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Bay Times

By The Editorial Board

Published September 26, 2017


Once upon a time, the federal government created a program called the Hardest Hit Fund. Its goal was admirable, and its mission important. The fund was designed to aid Americans in danger of losing their houses after the Great Recession had wreaked havoc on the economy. Unfortunately, the folks in Washington erred in one respect. They trusted Florida to get that money into the hands of people who needed it most.


It is difficult to overstate how cynically and incompetently Florida officials have mishandled money that was meant to be a lifeline for people in crisis. As pointed out last month by Tampa Bay Times senior correspondent Susan Taylor Martin, a recent special inspector general report criticized the state's housing agency for spending more than $100,000 of funds on employee bonuses and other perks.

From the time more than $1 billion in aid started flowing into the state in 2010, Florida has delayed, distorted and otherwise bungled the effort's clear mission. One of the original five states targeted in a program that eventually grew to 18, Florida was always woefully behind its neighbors in disbursing money. It began when state officials soft-pedaled the news that this help was even available. Then, as foreclosures were surging and housing values were dropping dramatically, Florida decided it needed to run a three-month pilot program in a single county. That three months turned into six, as more and more people across the state lost their homes.

Martin's reporting for the Times in March 2013 revealed Florida was trailing every other state in rescuing distressed mortgages, and when money was awarded it occasionally went to felons, tax evaders and people with a history of running up mountains of debt. By April of that year, the U.S. Treasury Department had opened an investigation into Florida's handling of funds.

By the fall of 2013, Florida began to focus on residents who were upside-down on their mortgages due to falling house values. A rush of 25,000 residents applied for the program that would help pay down principal balances. Four months later, Florida had assisted a total of 750 homeowners, or 0.3 percent.

The Hardest Hit Fund was designed to aid Americans in danger of losing their houses after the Great Recession. Unfortunately, the folks in Washington trusted Florida to get that money into the hands of people who needed it most.


The coup de grace came when Florida, because it had distributed a lesser percentage of money than other states, could only apply for a smaller portion of funds available in 2016. Except the state didn't bother to apply, meaning Florida lost a potential $250 million. This for a state that had one of the highest totals of foreclosures in the nation.

So, no, the news that Florida's housing agency recklessly spent $100,000 on employee perks last month was not shocking. It is just further evidence that this state, in the midst of a housing crisis unprecedented in several generations, mishandled a rescue mission that would have stabilized the economy sooner and saved the homes of thousands of Floridians.