Running questions about the F.H.A.’s future — underscored by interviews with policy makers, analysts and home buyers — came to the fore on Thursday on Capitol Hill. In testimony before a House subcommittee, the F.H.A. commissioner, David H. Stevens, assured lawmakers that his agency would not need a bailout and that it was managing its risks.
But he acknowledged that some 20 percent of F.H.A. loans insured last year — and as many as 24 percent of those from 2007 — faced serious problems including foreclosure, offering a preview of a forthcoming audit of the agency’s finances.
“Let me simply state at the outset that based on current projections, absent any catastrophic home price decline, F.H.A. will not need to ask Congress and the American taxpayer for extraordinary assistance — we will not need a bailout,” Mr. Stevens said in his testimony.
But to its critics, the F.H.A. looks like another Fannie Mae. The hearings on Thursday came on the same day that the federal agency charged with overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac provided a somber assessment of those giants’ health. In the year since the government stepped in to rescue them, the companies have taken $96 billion from the Treasury, and may need more.
Since the bottom fell out of the mortgage market, the F.H.A. has assumed a crucial role in the nation’s housing market. Created in 1934 to help lower-income and first-time buyers purchase homes, the agency now insures roughly 5.4 million single-family home mortgages, with a combined value of $675 billion.
In addition, these loans are bundled into mortgage-backed securities and guaranteed through the Government National Mortgage Association, known as Ginnie Mae. That means the taxpayer is responsible for paying investors who own Ginnie Mae bonds when F.H.A.-backed mortgages hit trouble.
“It appears destined for a taxpayer bailout in the next 24 to 36 months,” Edward Pinto, a former Fannie Mae executive, said in testimony prepared for the hearing. Mr. Pinto, who was the chief credit officer from 1987 to 1989 for Fannie Mae, went further than most housing analysts and predicted that F.H.A. losses would more than wipe out the agency’s $30 billion of cash reserves.
The issue has polarized Congress. Republicans, who led efforts to rein in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac before those companies ran into trouble, are now seeking to bridle the F.H.A. Many Democrats insist the F.H.A. is playing a vital role in the housing market, which is only just starting to stabilize.