By 9 a.m. Thursday _ just 24 hours after the state began taking applications for a principal-reduction program _ more than 12,000 Floridians with underwater mortgages applied for the aid.
The Florida Housing Finance Corp. will accept no more than 25,000 _ a number officials expect to reach this week.
Florida Housing plans to distribute $350 million in federal funds in this fashion to help qualified homeowners whose properties are financially underwater — that is, worth less than the outstanding balances on their loans.
Applications poured in Wednesday at a rate of nine per minute — so many that the application website, principalreductionflhhf.org, crashed temporarily during the early going. During the first 30 minutes after the website went live, it inadvertently directed visitors to a Web page that informed applicants the program had already reached capacity and the application process was closed.
More than 100 homeowners called the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday morning, some desperately seeking information about how they could apply. Others were frustrated with the process.
"This would be a life-changer for us, because it would reduce the mortgage amount," said Mary K. Hall, a retired paralegal and freelance editor who lives with her daughter in south Orlando. "We're just desperate over here. We're at our wits' end."
The 85-year-old Hall said she tried filing immediately after midnight, but the website wasn't functioning. She was trying again in the afternoon, but her computer at that point was "half-dead because I worked it to death."
The Navy widow refinanced several years ago and was able to get her $1,400-a-month mortgage payment reduced to $900, but her house is still more than $100,000 underwater. The state, she added, should have made the application process easier.
Fewer than half of those who do manage to submit an application are likely to get into the program. State officials said they hope to help 10,000 homeowners reduce their remaining mortgage balance by an average of $35,000 each. That is less than one-tenth of the homeowners with underwater mortgages in Florida, where home values were slashed in half by the housing slump and recession.
Even if Hall can submit her application prior to the state's cutoff, she is unlikely to qualify for the assistance because her house is too far underwater to meet the state's requirements.
The housing-finance agency said it will reduce only those mortgages that are at least 25 percent larger than the value of the house.
Hall does meet the program's other requirements: Homeowners must be current on their mortgages, can earn as much as 140 percent more than the area's median income and can be fully employed.
Also, an applicant's unpaid loan amount can be as high as $350,000.
Homeowners such as Kenneth Paige, 80, of Apopka have no real shot at the assistance, even if they qualify, because they do not have immediate access to the Internet.
"Some of us older people don't have computers, and we have to depend on somebody else. I don't think that's fair," said Paige, who doesn't qualify because he has a $100,000 mortgage on a house currently valued at about $40,000 on the tax rolls.
The principal-reduction funds actually come in the form of a loan that gradually goes away after five years. Homeowners who sell their property within the five years would have to repay at least part of the money. The amount to be returned dwindles by 20 percent annually.
The money comes from $1 billion in assistance that the state was awarded by Washington in 2011 as part of the federal government's Hardest Hit Fund. After spending only a small fraction of that money, the state announced last week it would broaden its use of the money by reducing the remaining principal on mortgages that met its requirements.
Previously, it had provided mortgage assistance primarily to homeowners who were unemployed or underemployed, and the aid mainly took the form of temporary assistance with monthly payments.
The state came under fire earlier this year for putting too many restrictions on Floridians' use of the foreclosure-prevention funds. In March, federal officials announced an investigation into Florida's version of the Hardest Hit program after U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., complained that it was poorly run and reaching too few of the state's struggling homeowners.