A New Jersey program that could help struggling homeowners who face foreclosure has been tied up in bureaucratic foot-dragging, even as the rate of foreclosures in the state increases.

That's the gist of a report from a U.S. special inspector general on the HomeKeeper program, which has access to $300 million in federal money to help New Jersey homeowners who who are in danger of losing their homes because they can't keep up with their mortgages.

As The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Sept. 3, in 15 months New Jersey has spent just 10 percent of the money it received in 2010 as part of the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program, which bailed out large banks when the national housing bubble burst. Only 750 homeowners in the state have been helped, even though New Jersey has the second-highest percentage of mortgage loans in foreclosure, 7.7 percent, and the fourth-highest percentage of overdue mortgage loans, 16 percent, in the nation.

Under HomeKeeper, unemployed and underemployed homeowners can get no-interest mortgage loans to stave off foreclosure. But mistakes by both federal and state officials have meant that the program has barely gotten off the ground.

Advocates blame unclear goals, overly strict rules, lackluster outreach and slow response times for the disappointing results. Some homeowners in the state have waited more than a year to hear whether their application for help has been approved or rejected.

The report comes at a time when banks have begun to increase the pace of foreclosures in the state.

From 2010 to the fall of 2011, foreclosures were on hold after the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered banks to verify their foreclosure procedures. The order stemmed from concerns about the national "robo-signing" scandal, in which some lenders had instituted foreclosure proceedings without verifying necessary legal documents.

Foreclosures increased dramatically in southern New Jersey in the first half of 2012. Numbers from RealtyTrac show foreclosures were up 33 percent in Cape May County, 53 percent in Ocean County and 80 percent in Atlantic County.

Even with that increase, New Jersey has barely touched its backlog of foreclosures, meaning thousands of homeowners are still in need of help.

The good news is that state officials now say they have a better handle on how to implement HomeKeeper. They are ditching some restrictions - such as a requirement that the value of a home exceed the value of the loan - and hiring more people to process requests.

Which still leaves the question, what took so long?

The money is there and the need is real. There's no reason this money shouldn't be used to help the people it was intended to help.


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