Home builders in the United States are asking a disturbing and pertinent question: "Where will our children live?"

There is a rising note of urgency in their question as we find ourselves confronting an unprecedented need for shelter coupled with an affordability barrier that has already ruled out homeownership for millions of young Americans.

Crisis is a grossly overworked word, but it is the only term that describes adequately a situation in which demand in this decade for 22.5 million new housing units is converging with economic factors that have driven up the average monthly costs for the home buyer -- including interest, principal, taxes, insurance, maintenance and utilities -- by 42 percent in the last two years. Compared to the decade just past, the next decade will see a 50 percent increase in the number of household formations -- 97 million as opposed to 67 million during the 1970s.

The effects of these demographic and economic pressures are already apparent. More and more young couples are moving in with their parents because they cannot afford a home of their own. And more and more corporations are being forced into the real estate business because transferred employes either cannot sell the homes they are leaving or cannot afford to buy in their new locations.

While a return to the extended family may appeal to many -- and there is also much to be said for corporations helping their employes adjust to relocation -- these are not long-term solutions. Instead, they are alarm signals, loud and unmistakable, warning of more serious problems to come.

Not everyone, of course, will be priced out of the market. Those who have a comfortable equity in their present homes will still be able to trade up, if they wish, and buyers with higher incomes -- young professional couples, for example, with two salaries -- may be able to afford the higher prices. For these types of buyers, the high mortgage interest rates will be offset in part by tax deductions. The housing crunch will be an inconvenience; it will be troublesome. But it will not constitute an absolute barrier to ownership.

But for most young couples looking toward the first home of their own, and for those on fixed incomes -- the elderly, for example -- the question of buying a house will not be a matter of "should we or shouldn't we?" It will be a matter of "we can't."

This somewhat pessimistic outlook is more a matter of mathematics than speculation.

When mortgage rates drop and funds become more plentiful -- and the recession fades -- the long-stifled housing demand will make itself felt. We will see a return of the seller's market.

But, when the pent-up demand hits the market, the supply will not be equal to the need because manufacturers and suppliers have geared down the production of building materials. The inevitable result will be severe shortages and rising prices. The cost of housing that does become available will spiral upward. Left behind will be the would-be buyers I described above; those of more modest means and thoseo on fixed incomes.

It doesn't have to be this way.

There is no single answer to the dilemma. It will not be resolved with a stroke of the pen. But there are a number of measures that can be taken. Each would ameliorate, to a certain degree, the problem of affordability.

To cite a few examples: Use of the graduated payment mortgage (GPM) designed for young persons whose income is expected to increase. It may well be combined with the renegotiable rate mortgage (RRM) to open the doors for more first-time home buyers.

Another alternative is the equity mortgage, in which the lender accepts a lower interest rate in exchange for a share of the borrower's equity in his home.

There is also the possibility of the pledged account mortgage (PAM) designed to help first-time buyers, in which all or part of the downpayment is pledged to the lender as additional security. Each month, a portion of the borrower's payment comes from this account and a portion from his own pocket. By prearrangement, as the borrower's income increases, his out-of-pocket payments would increase and the supplemental payments from the account decrease until the pledged account is depleted.

These examples are illustrative of the kind of action that could be taken; there could be any number of combinations and variations and, indeed, common sense tells us that the times demand innovative financing.

But perhaps most important of all is the need for a national perception and awareness of the problem. The U.S. public and its representatives have repeatedly affirmed their belief that everyone and affordable shelter. Moreover, they have made it the law of the land in the Housing Act of 1945 and the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968.

But our national attention has been distracted by other problems that seem to be more immediate and pressing. The national consensus on the importance of housing has become fragmented.

It must, somehow, be reassembled if we are to meet the record-breaking demands for shelter that will confront us in this decade. The housing and housing finance industries can take palliative measures; solutions must await a national commitment on the task of providing affordable shelter for people who will be, after all, our own children.