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Bush mortgage plan freezes certain subprime rates

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has hammered out an agreement to freeze interest rates for certain subprime mortgages for five years to combat a soaring tide of foreclosures, congressional aides said Wednesday.

The aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the details have not yet been released, said the five-year moratorium represented a compromise between desires by banking regulators for a longer time frame of up to seven years and mortgage industry arguments that the freeze should last only one or two years.

Another person familiar with the matter said the rate-freeze plan would apply to borrowers with loans made at the start of 2005 through July 30 of this year with rates that are scheduled to rise between Jan. 1, 2008, and July 31, 2010.

The administration said President Bush will speak on the agreement at the White House today and the Treasury Department announced that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson would hold a joint news conference this afternoon with mortgage industry officials.

Treasury also announced there would be a technical briefing to explain more of the proposal's details.

Paulson, who has been leading the effort to craft a plan, said Monday that the program would only be available for owner-occupied homes - to ensure the break is not given to real estate speculators.

The plan emerged from talks between Paulson and other banking regulators and banks, mortgage investors and consumer groups trying to address an avalanche of foreclosures feared as an estimated 2 million subprime mortgages reset from lower introductory rates to higher rates.

In many cases, the higher rates will boost monthly payments by as much as 30 percent, making it very difficult for many people to keep current with their loans.

The plan is aimed at homeowners who are making payments on time at lower introductory mortgage rates but cannot afford a higher adjusted rate.

Through October, there were about 1.8 million foreclosure filings nationwide, compared with about 1.3 million in all of 2006, according to Irvine, Calif.-based RealtyTrac Inc. With home loan defaults still rising, the trend is expected to worsen next year.

The plan represents an about-face for Paulson, who until recently had insisted the mortgage crisis could be handled on a case-by-case basis. However, he and other administration officials became convinced the tide of foreclosures threatened by the mortgage resets represented such a severe threat that a more sweeping approach was needed. They opted for a proposal that was along the lines of a plan put forward in October by Sheila Bair, head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Paulson and other federal regulators began holding talks with some of the country's biggest mortgage lenders, mortgage service companies, investors who hold mortgage-backed securities and nonprofit groups that provide counseling for at-risk homeowners.

Under the typical subprime loan - those offered to borrowers with spotty credit histories - the rates for the first two years were at levels around 7 percent to 9 percent. But after two years, those rates were scheduled to reset to levels around 9 percent to 11 percent.