President Reagan and top administration officials voiced sympathy but made no commitments yesterday to personal pleas from leaders of the homebuilding industry for special federal aid.
The administration, signaling a possible shift in policy, also promised to look more closely at a proposal endorsed by key congressional Republicans to subsidize mortgage interest rates for buyers of new homes. Administration officials previously said the legislation would be too costly for the White House to back.
Proponents of the plan have argued that it would create 700,000 jobs and would pay for itself in economic stimulus, despite the $1-billion-a-year price tag for the large interest-rate payments themselves.
"If they are right in what they are saying, it's not what I would consider a subsidy," Housing Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr. said in an interview after the meeting.
"A direct, outright subsidy we would be against," but under the interest-rate plan as described by the homebuilders, "we do advance the money, but we do get it back," he said. Pierce was among those known in the past to believe the proposal to be too expensive.
The real net revenue impact and jobs stimulus are aspects of the plan that a Cabinet-level task force will question economists about next week in studying the proposal, Pierce added.
Reagan told officials of the National Association of Home Builders and the National Forest Products Association that their industries probably have suffered more than any others during the current recession.
The meeting was attended by Vice President George Bush, six Cabinet members and a number of other top administration officials, an all-star cast that gave industry officials encouragement that the White House is serious in its attempt to find a quick and substantial stimulus for housing.
In addition, the president told Pierce at the meeting he wants the recommendation of his task force by next week, ahead of the original March 31 deadline.
"Yours are the hardest hit, along with the auto industry, maybe even worse," Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes quoted Reagan as saying.
Reagan on Thursday had cited a recent slight rise in housing starts as a sign that economic recovery is on its way. But members of the housing industry said the figures mean no such thing and that, without substantial federal assistance, the industry would remain in a depression that has plagued it for the past 40 months. They said the president seemed to understand this point after they talked with him yesterday.
The groups that saw Reagan are traditionally Republican, but yesterday they gave him a strong political message: Their members will not stay in his camp if he does not provide them with relief.
"I told him as one old cavalry officer to another, our oxes are in a ditch, our sawmills are in a ditch," William Stimpson, president of the forest products group, told reporters. "I didn't dwell on the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, but it might have been brought up," he added with a laugh.
The legislation sought by the homebuilders has formidable backing from congressional Republicans. These include Senate Housing subcommittee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the main sponsor; Senate Banking Committee Chairman Jake Garn (R-Utah); Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) and such philosophically diverse backers as Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Similar legislation was offered in the House by Rep. Jerry Patterson (D-Calif.).
A proposal that has found favor in the White House task force, for broader use of tax-exempt mortgage revenue bonds by local governments, is a good idea but would have only a small impact on the industry, said Frederick Napolitano, president of the homebuilders' group.