WASHINGTON - Mortgage lenders could gain opportunities but face new perils from a major initiative launched by President Clinton to boost homeownership.

The program, unveiled at the White House on Monday, aims to add eight million families to the ranks of homeowners by the year 2000. That could mean about $500 billion of additional loans - clearly a boon for the volume-starved mortgage industry.

However, many of the new homeowners are likely to be lower-income families that present higher credit risks.

"You'll be looking at people who are more likely to have employment histories that are a little speckled, or a credit history that has some nicks on it," said Warren Lasko, executive vice president of the Mortgage Bankers Association. "There is a prospect that those are going to be riskier loans."

The measures are an example of the new-style federal government. No new federal money is involved. Rather, the government has recruited lenders, mortgage insurers, secondary-market agencies, community organizations, and others, who would be voluntary partners in cutting financing and construction costs and tearing down discriminatory barriers.

If the plan is successful, a record 67.5% of Americans will be homeowners by the end of the year 2000, up from 64.2% now.

How will this happen?

Almost certainly, there will be an increase in loans with low - zero to 5% - down payments, because the lack of a down payment is one of the biggest barriers to owning a home, said Peter Chinloy, professor of real estate and finance at American University in Washington.

This is going to "create a lot of default risk in the housing market," as heavily leveraged buyers pay off mortgages on slowly appreciating homes, Mr. Chinloy said.

But not everybody is worried about the risk. Nicolas P. Retsinas, HUD assistant secretary for housing, defended the program, which aims to set homeownership records. (See related story below.)

"The perceived risk exceeds the real risk" of lending to low-income and moderate-income families, Mr. Retsinas said.

The FHA program has shown that it is possible to make low down payment loans safely, Mr. Retsinas said. What's important is pricing for the risk, and managing it through homebuyer counseling, sweat equity and other tools, he added.

And William C. Apgar, executive director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, said the administration's program would encourage lenders to learn how to lend to borrowers who are actually a good bet but might appear to be bad risks based on traditional underwriting practices.

Recent studies suggest that the new wave of nontraditional loans to low- income borrowers default more frequently than standard mortgages.

The Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, which monitors the fiscal soundness of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, has found that loans with a 95% loan-to-value ratio in "underserved areas" have higher rates of default than loans of the same ratio in other areas.

The regulator defined underserved areas as urban areas with high concentrations of lower-income or minority residents.

Fannie and Freddie are already being pushed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to increase their lending to underserved areas, and Fannie has pledged to lend $1 trillion to underserved and targeted households by the end of the century.

Mortgage Guaranty Insurance Corp. of Milwaukee, the nation's second- largest mortgage insurer, said it had seen similar results in flexibly underwritten loans, identified by lenders as "affordable housing" loans. Most of the loans MGIC has studied were sold to Fannie or Freddie - formally the Federal National Mortgage Association and Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp.

Gordon H. Steinbach, executive vice president of affordable housing at MGIC, said that he expected more loans with flexible underwriting would inevitably lead to higher defaults if lenders continue their present course.

Mr. Steinbach laid the blame on inadequate counseling to potential homeowners. Effective guidance, he believes, would prepare borrowers realistically for homeownership, and make for safer loans.

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