* U.S. says tens of thousands of homeowners could benefit
* Minimum forbearance period extended to 12 months
* White House actions may help housing market recovery
By Rachelle Younglai
WASHINGTON, July 7 The Obama administration on Thursday unveiled plans to give unemployed borrowers and their bankers more time to delay home foreclosures, the latest effort to help struggling Americans stay in their homes.
With 13.9 million Americans out of work and a glut of foreclosures depressing home prices and the overall market, the administration has been forced to tweak some of its foreclosure prevention plans.
Under special programs run by the Federal Housing Administration and the Treasury Department, lenders would be required to forbear or postpone loan payments for qualified homeowners by at least one year. The previous forbearance period was four months for the Federal Housing Administration's program. The Treasury's unemployment program had a minimum forbearance period of three months.
"The biggest driver of foreclosures today remains unemployment," said Shaun Donovan, the secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The extensions "will provide more opportunities for unemployed borrowers to stay in their homes while they look for a job," he said.
Donovan said tens of thousands of homeowners could benefit from the longer forbearance period.
Consumer advocates welcomed the administration's plan and said it was a long time coming.
"It's a significant improvement. However, many people may have lost their homes because of the delay in extending it," said Alys Cohen, a staff attorney for consumer advocacy group the National Consumer Law Center.
MORE TIME TO FIND WORK
The government's latest labor report showed that more than 45 percent of unemployed Americans have been out of work for more than six months.
The administration is hoping that its actions will help set the standard and push mortgage servicers to provide more assistance to struggling borrowers. Most of the major servicers, which collect payments and negotiate new terms for troubled loans, take part in Treasury's housing programs.
The administration has thrown billions of dollars in taxpayer funds into programs to prevent foreclosures.
One plan gives banks incentives to permanently modify home loans. Another gives states that have been the hardest hit by falling home prices funding to help reduce the principal of a borrower's loan.
But nothing has helped the housing market recover after its collapse starting early in 2007.
Although the drop in U.S. home prices showed signs of easing in April, foreclosures and weak prices remain a major overhang for the market with too many homes up for sale and anemic consumer demand.
More than 3.5 million homes have been foreclosed on since early 2007, according to real estate data firm RealtyTrac.
"If we can take some of the inventory out, you will help the housing market see its natural recovery sooner," said Sarah Wartell, executive vice president with a progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress.
"In this case, we have got a bunch of foreclosures that may be able to avoided if we give people more time to find a new job in this very difficult economy," she said. (Additional reporting by Leah Schnurr in New York; Editing by Jan Paschal)