<> on December 4, 2013 in Dublin, California.

As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the US economy, millions of homeowners have taken advantage of a government program that enables them to reduce or delay their mortgage payments.

The payment relief, or forbearance, enables homeowners with federally-backed loans who are impacted by the pandemic to delay or reduce their mortgage payment and to get a break on the accumulating interest for up to a year.

In the week ending April 12, the share of loans in forbearance jumped to 5.95%. That’s a 60% increase from the prior week, according to a Mortgage Bankers Association survey of more than three quarters of home loans, or about 38.3 million loans. At the beginning of March, before the coronavirus pandemic caused widespread shutdowns across the US, only 0.25% of all loans were in forbearance.

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“Homeowners are contacting their mortgage servicers seeking relief, leading to a sharp increase in the share of loans in forbearance across all loan types,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s chief economist in a statement.

He said that while mortgage servicers continue to receive a very high number of forbearance requests, they were down somewhat compared to the prior week. Call times went down, too, with hold times dropping in half from 10 minutes to five.

But, with more than 22 million people filing for unemployment during the past four weeks, the numbers are expected to rise again.

“The numbers [are] big, but are going to get even bigger,” said David M. Dworkin, president and CEO of the National Housing Conference, a nonprofit advocating for affordable housing. “We are only two mortgage payments into this crisis, and already 6% of the people paying mortgages are asking for help. Others can’t pay but haven’t asked for help yet. By May, we will have millions more unemployed and unable to pay.”

Bearing the cost of all those delayed mortgage payments could put a strain on some servicers — particularly some smaller mortgage companies that do not directly make loans.

The federal mandate to allow millions of desperate homeowners to delay their mortgages “has the great potential to be too great a strain for non-bank servicers,” said Ed DeMarco, president of the Housing Policy Council.

Ultimately, this could make it more difficult for people to access mortgages, with some lenders already announcing the tightening of credit standards, DeMarco said.

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