The Reagan administration is leaning toward tax incentives designed to give a short-term boost to the housing industry, rather than the mortgage interest subsidy for homebuyers proposed by key congressional members, administration sources said yesterday.
One proposal, which has received strong backing by a Cabinet-level housing task force, calls for a broader use of tax-exempt mortgage revenue bonds that local governments can use to provide below-market-rate mortgage money, these sources say. The proposal would be one of the least expensive approaches under consideration.
The homebuilding industry supports the mortgage revenue bonds but is pushing for deeper, direct subsidies.
President Reagan formed the ad hoc task force last month with a mandate to come up with a housing aid plan by the end of this month. Its chairman is Housing Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr., and it includes other Cabinet members and presidential advisers James A. Baker III and Edwin Meese III.
The group has an overriding concern about the budget deficit, and is unlikely to propose anything costing much money, administration officials said. This would knock out large tax breaks, including tax-free Individual Housing Accounts such as proposed by the President's Commission on Housing or a tax credit for first-time homebuyers, they added.
The main advantage of revenue bonds is that budget monies already have been allotted for far more bonds than have been issued because the bond market has been so depressed, housing experts said. If all the tax exemptions already available were used, 300,000 units could be financed, according to the National Association of Home Builders' chief economist, Michael Sumichrast.
But this assumes a healthy bond market and housing agencies in most states ready and able to issue the bonds, which was not the case last year. If bond rates are too high, the financed mortgage rates aren't low enough to stimulate sales.
The president is scheduled to meet with members of the housing industry on March 19 to hear their pleas for emergency assistance. The industry has suffered from postwar lows in sales and construction in the last year, primarily because of record-high interest rates, and now it is calling for a mortgage interest subsidy for homebuyers.
This is the same $5 billion plan being offered by Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) of the Senate housing subcommittee, the top congressional Republican on housing issues. Lugar uses a type of supply-side argument for the subsidy, saying it would more than pay for itself by stimulating construction jobs and tax revenues in addition to its eventual recapture from homebuyers.
But the plan's immediate, direct budget impact is a major stumbling block at the White House.
"It's just too big. . . . We're interested in giving a short-term stimulus to the industry," said one administration source.
But a spokesman for the Democrat-controlled House Banking housing subcommittee said the Lugar proposal is a good sign that Congress can approve a mortgage subsidy plan this year anyway.
House Banking Democrats have put forward their own $18 billion housing aid plan, which includes a form of mortgage interest subsidies. That proposal would subsidize interest rates down to 9 1/2 percent on perhaps 100,000 new homes for 10 years. Based on continuation of a program the administration wants to kill, the plan is targeted to low- and moderate-income persons.
The Lugar bill would provide a lower subsidy for more families for a shorter time. The federal government would pay for 4 percentage points of loans provided at FHA rates on as many as 450,000 newly built homes, for five years.
Despite the differences in details, the Lugar bill and the Democrats' proposal are similar enough to provide the basis for a compromise on homebuying and construction aid, said a top housing subcommittee staff aide.
"Those differences are easily worked out," he said. "We won't quibble on the type of assistance."
Lugar told a press conference yesterday he believes the president eventually will support the idea as a jobs stimulus and because it pays for itself.
"At some point, the president of the United States will decide we have to do something constructive about housing," Lugar said.