Recent Federal Reserve Board actions to raise borrowing rates and tighten the supply of money will stifle new housing production and could cost as many as 1.5 million jobs, a housing industry leader charged this week.
"This reckless monetary policy, unless reversed or moderated, greatly increases the risk of a deeper and longer national recession," said Vondal S. Gravlee, president of the National Association of Home Bulders. "It could lead to a major housing collaspe causing as much as a 50 percent decline in housing production," he told members of the NAHB board meeting in Atlanta.
On Monday, however, President Carter asserted in a speech that the housing industry has fared well during his administration despite tight fiscal policies.
"What we've tried to do since I have been in office -- in spite of high interest rates, which are set by the Federal Reserve based on inflation -- is to keep the home construction business strong, and we've done it so far," Carter told the Catholic Charities Convention in Kansas City.
"We've cut unemployment among construction workers by at least 40 percent and we've been averaging 1.8 million homes per year, which is nearing a record average, so I think we're handling it. So, far, they have not quit buying homes," Carter said.
[Later in the week, the Commerce Department reported an increase in housing starts in September over a year earlier. But housing experts said the jump to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.881 million from 1.806 million was misleading because it reflects lending commitments made before the latest interest rate increases began.]
Gravlee told his board that $24 billion in construction-related wages could be lost annually and housing construction could be cut in half. The production drop would cost the government $6.4 billion in tax revenues, he said, and additional billions in relief to laid-off workers.
"The tight money and high interest rate approach might moderate the rise in housing prices temporarily," he added, "but in the long run it will mean higher prices for consumers because demand in the years ahead will far exceed the supply of housing."
Housing starts are expected to fall this year to about 1.7 million, down from 2 million in 1978. The organized builders earlier predicted that starts will continue to decline -- to 1.47 million -- next year. In the wake of recent Fed action, that outlook has been further dampened and predictions of less than 1 million starts a year have been made. A similarly sharp downturn occurred five years ago during the 1974-75 recession.
Gravlee also told the builders' board that mortgage interest rates will rise to 13 or 14 percent and price millions of first-time home buyers out of the market. He added that the cost of borrowing construction money has risen to 16 1/2 percent, because most of those short-term building loans are usually pegged 2 points above prime on an escalating basis.
Gravlee reported that House-Senate conferees have approved legislation that would lower the down payment required on a FHA 245 (graduated payment) mortage from 8 to 4 percent. Under the new program, which is expected to be sent to the White House soon as part of a new housing act, a family or person could buy a $55,000 house with a down payment of $2,250 instead of the $4,200 now required.
The revised program would be limited to 10 percent of all the mortgages on one- to four-family homes insured by FHA or 50,000 mortgages.