Florida Senator Bill Nelson wants the U.S. bailout program overseer to determine why Florida is missing out on many intended benefits for homeowners facing foreclosure that was suppose to come from the so-called Hardest Hit Fund.
In a letter accusing Florida officials of “mismanagement” and “inaction,” Nelson is seeking an investigation by the special inspector general of the federal Troubled Assets Relief Program, commonly known as TARP, which funds the Hardest Hit aid effort. Nelson, a Democrat, is Florida’s senior senator.
Florida, which is certainly one of the hardest hit states in the ongoing foreclosure crisis, has seen 7,314 homeowners receive aid from the fund as of Dec. 31 — that’s much fewer than in Michigan, Ohio and North Carolina — states with much smaller populations.
The federally-funded Hardest Hit Fund earmarked $7.6 billion to 18 states and the District of Columbia three years ago to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure, many of them unemployed or facing other hardships.
But only 25 percent of the money has been allocated to the various state Housing Finance Agencies (HFAs) responsible for helping families, with the assistance of lenders and investors. And only 16 percent of the $7.6 billion has been distributed nationwide. The program ends in 2017.
More than most other states, Florida has had a tough time getting the Hardest Hit Fund to reach those who need the assistance the most.
A Tampa Bay Times investigation uncovered dozens of homeowners with questionable backgrounds getting aid.
The Times review found the office of Gov. Rick Scott, a critic of federal stimulus programs, “restricted efforts to publicize the Hardest Hit program and was instrumental in reducing aid when it went statewide in 2011.”
Additionally, the vast majority of Florida’s 557,000 condo owners were ineligible for the fund’s assistance for more than a year because of an arbitrary policy that was later reversed.
At least 15 people in Tampa Bay alone got assistance despite felony records for fraud, possession of child pornography and other serious offenses, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Dozens more received help despite previous foreclosures, IRS liens and bankruptcies.
In a statement this week, the head of Florida Housing Finance Corp., the public agency that runs the Hardest Hit program, said state and federal audits have not found aid going to ineligible applicants.
“We are working tirelessly to put this federal assistance into the hands of the homeowners who qualify for it, and are confident the funding will be properly expended by the Dec. 31, 2017, deadline,” said executive director Stephen Auger.
Florida uses the Hardest Hit money only for loan payments for homeowners who lose their jobs or take pay cuts.