President set to visit Reno today

CARSON CITY - Reno homeowner Val Keller will thank President Barack Obama for saving her money today when he visits her home to tout his new mortgage refinancing proposal that could help as many as 3.5 million homeowners secure lower interest rates.

Keller and her husband, Paul, now pay $240 less per month in mortgage payments because they took advantage of another Obama refinancing program, the Home Affordable Refinancing Program, which went into effect in January.

That program was limited to people with federally insured mortgages whose mortgages were more than their current home value.

The new program, part of the "To Do List" announced by Obama on Tuesday, also would be open to people with non-federally insured mortgages if the homeowners are current with their payments. They could participate even if their mortgage was less than the current value of their home.

"People don't seem aware of it," Keller said of HARP. "It worked for us. I have been telling my neighbors about it. More people should take advantage of it."

Obama's trip, which will be closed to the public, marks his first visit to Reno since April 2011.

Keller learned about the HARP program by watching a Reno TV news show on Obama's Oct. 24 visit to Las Vegas, where he discussed the refinancing plan at the home of Jose and Lissette Bonilla.

In a telephone conference call, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said Thursday that 60 percent of homes in Nevada are "under water," meaning the amount remaining on the mortgage is more than the current value of the home.

He said the program would be good for the economy because homeowners would pay less on their mortgages and could use the savings on other purchases.

Mortgage interest rates have fallen to 3.83 percent on a 30-year loan. The administration estimates the typical homeowner could save $2,500 to $3,000 a year if the enabling bill passes. Homeowners would be permitted to refinance without a lot of appraisals and closing costs.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has introduced Obama's refinancing bill in Congress, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did not mention it Thursday among priority bills for votes in the coming weeks.

Reid called the bill "a good piece of legislation" that he wants to move "as quickly as possible." But more pressing are bills to provide tax credits to small businesses, keep student loan interest rates frozen at a low rate and renew the government's export bank.

"Have we done enough administratively and legislatively? Of course not, and no state feels it more than Nevada," Reid said of mortgage relief. "But every state in the union needs this help."

Keller called the pending Obama appearance "our 15 minutes of fame." Since Monday, federal agents have been busy setting up security for the visit.

The Kellers had a $168,000 mortgage on their home, where they have lived for 14 years, but its value has dropped to $100,000.

Donovan said Obama cannot implement his new plan - unlike the program the Kellers took advantage of - by executive action. Instead he needs approval of Congress, an arduous task during an election year.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, this week questioned whether the new plan would work.

"How many times have we done this?" Boehner asked when questioned by reporters. "We have done this at least four times where there's some new government program to help homeowners who have trouble with their mortgages. None of these programs have worked. And I don't know why anyone would think this next idea is going to work."

But the Obama administration questioned why Republicans, especially in Nevada, would not support a bill to help "responsible homeowners."

"The president believes this is more important than partisan politics," said Brandon Lepow, a White House deputy press secretary.

Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault contributed to this report.