Reagan administration housing officials are nearing their goal of eliminating the minimum standards for single-family and duplex homes backed by Federal Housing Administration mortgage insurance.
The so-called Minimum Property Standards were established nearly 35 years ago to guarantee safe and livable homes for Americans. Because houses must meet the standards to qualify for FHA mortage insurance, many developers conform to the rules so purchasers will be eligible.
In the place of the old standards, the Housing and Urban Development Department will require new houses to meet state or local building codes. In areas where there is no code or it is considered to be inadequate, HUD would use one of several model building codes that have been prepared by private groups, according to Mark W. Holman of HUD's Manufactured Housing and Construction Standards.
The new rule will soon be sent to the Office of Management and Budget for approval, then HUD must give Congress 30 legislative days to consider it before it goes into effect -- probably in September, Holman predicted.
Proponents of the change, mostly representatives of the building industry, say the change will lower housing costs without reducing the quality of U.S. housing. But critics predict that the change can only lead to shoddier construction.
"We're very concerned" about the elimination of the standards, said Diane Dorius, counsel to the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs subcommittee on housing. The HUD inspectors will have to become familiar with more than 4,000 local building codes, she said, adding, "I don't believe they have enough people to do the job responsibly."
For instance, Dorius said, the Cleveland metropolitan area alone has about 40 different codes. And the HUD staff that would have to deal with them has been "decimated" in recent years by RIFs, she said. The FHA work force has dropped by nearly 1,200 employes, or 17 percent, since 1981, according to HUD figures.
Most critics of the proposed regulations acknowledge that some changes are needed, but say that it would be unwise to eliminate the standards.
The standards now include such unnecessary restrictions as prohibitions on wooden front porches and steps and bedrooms that open off of living rooms, said Hal Wilson, executive director of the Housing Assistance Council, a federally funded nonprofit corporation that provides loans to low-income rural residents. But he said that while the FHA standards should be relaxed, "Our feeling is . . . there ought to be some kind of national standard for people to build to."
A building engineer who opposes the change says one drawback to most of the model codes that HUD wants to use is that they deal only with health and safety concerns, not questions of a building's durability or livability. Administration officials, however, contend that "free-market forces" will assure that houses are built to an acceptable level of quality.
Rick Lawson, director of inspections for Fairfax County, said parts of the FHA standards "were designed to address value, resale value, marketability . . . . They were trying to set a base-line standard for livability." But whether a home is considered to be livable, he said, should be left to the "market judgment of buyers."
"From a health, safety and welfare and affordability standpoint," eliminating the standards "is a reasonable move for HUD to make," Lawson said. He said that all Washington area jurisdictions have good building codes and thorough enforcement and, as a result, "almost every house built in the metropolitan area would exceed" the federal standard.
But Dorius said that rather than eliminate the standard, "what HUD could have done . . . is pare down the FHA code to the bare essentials," making it more efficient but not biased toward any special interest.
Dorius said she believes that local construction standards "are often favored vehicles for local politicians, as are local zoning ordinances. This may not be in the best interest of the consumer."
Other critics dispute the industry argument that eliminating the standard will lower the cost of housing. "Builders and developers will be able to increase their profits and in the process build shoddier houses, which in the long run will deteriorate the quality of housing for all of us," said Al Louis Ripskis, a HUD employe who publishes a newsletter that keeps a critical eye on the department.
A builder "could conceivably go with papier-mache bathtubs," Ripskis wrote in his newsletter. "In fact, the builder could go even further and eliminate bathtubs altogether. Under the new standards, bathtubs would no longer be mandatory; they could be replaced by showers."
But the home-building industry disagrees. Charles G. Field, staff vice president for construction and development of the National Association of Home Builders, said his organization believes eliminating the standards is "a very constructive step." Most local standards virtually duplicate the nationally recognized model codes "with small variations," making the federal standards "sheer duplications." Eliminating the FHA standards could reduce construction costs by 5 to 10 percent, because builders "will not have to build to two different standards."
The Farmers Home Administration, meanwhile, is in the process of adopting standards similar to HUD's. The new rules will go into effect in about a year, Wilson said.
-- Ann Mariano