If you've been watching mortgage rates climb to 14 percent and housing construction plummet, and have been struck by the lack of any specific remedies offered by the three presidential candidates, join the crowd.
What makes the 1980 campaign so utterly different from 1976, 1972, 1968 or earlier election contests is that no one -- not even the Democratic candidate -- is offering anything concrete for home buyers or renters.
There are no proposals for new or expanded programs of below-market-rate mortgages to help young and/or first-time buyers afford homes. This used to be standard election-year dogma for one -- if not both -- parties, along with pledges of help in housing, the elderly, the poor and the handicapped.
You won't hear a word about interest rate subsidies for young buyers in 1980. Jimmy Carter resisted congressional pressure earlier this year to appropriate funds for the "Brooke-Cranston" interest subsidy program for moderate-home buyers. He also refused to support the Democratic platform's call for an increase of 200,000 units in federal support for low- and moderate-cost housing.
Ronald Reagan doesn't like direct subsidies for mortgages under virtually any circumstances, so he's not complaining about Carter's softness on federal support for housing. Only John Anderson backed the efforts to unfreeze money for Brooke-Cranston -- but he hasn't made much of the issue since summer.
What we're seeing for the first time since the 1950s, in short, is an election in which neither major candidate has an activist vision on housing issues. There is no sharp philosophical clash between Carter and Reagan over government's role on behalf of buyers or renters: Both lean toward indirect, private marketplace solutions for housing problems. Both look to devices such as "alternative mortgages" to take care of buyers' needs, and neither has a clue about how to help renters directly.
Alternative mortgages -- such as variable-interest-rate, shared-equity and graduated payment loans -- are all worthwhile experimental measures for helping lenders provide more dollars for some potential buyers. But these mortgages also carry a price that many buyers can't or won't pay.
They require splits of profits with lenders, or escalating interest rates and monthly payments during the course of a loan. They have the distinct virtue of getting buyers into housing, but contain hidden roadblocks to keeping buyers in their houses in the sorry event that incomes don't rise along with the monthly payments.
In fairness, Ronald Reagan does offer an activist vision in an area that is closely tied to the health of housing -- the federal tax system. He proposes a series of deep cuts in personal and corporate income taxes as a way to stimulate the entire economy, housing along with it. He also has come out strongly for a detailed list of tax cuts that would directly increase the attractiveness of private investment in apartments, tax cuts that Carter opposes.
Reagan wants the capital gains tax cut below what it is today, permitting 70 percent of a property owner's profits to be excluded from federal taxation. Carter is against such a cut.
To provide more capital for housing, Reagan favors large-scale tax exemptions for savings by individuals at thrift institutions. Carter reluctantly accepted a set of significant tax exemptions for savings, but only because congressional proponents cleverly tacked it on to his windfall profits oil-tax bill.
Reagan wants to repeal a series of loophole-closing "tax reforms" dating to the 1960s and mid-1970s that have hamstrung investment in commercial real estate, and tied property owners in lengthy battles over depreciation schedules with the Internal Revenue Service.
Carter, on the other hand, has filled the IRS's top ranks in Washington with a group of attorneys who are aggressively anti-real estate. Under pressure from his campaign challenger, Carter has endorsed the concept of a tax cut for 1981 and reform of depreciation schedules for property owners. But he adamantly opposed the key real estate tax relief bill of 1980 that was passed by the Senate Finance Committee.
Carter has supported the abolition of local mortgage revenue bonds through which dozens of cities and counties across the United States -- from Chicago to Denver to New Orleans to Washington's suburbs -- have funded home loans at 8 to 10 percent interest.
Reagan shares some of Carter's reservations about excessive use of these bonds, but would allow cities to continue issuing them indefinitely during mortgage crunch periods.
Of the two major candidates, Reagan emerges as more of an activist on housing and real estate issues. But he approaches housing problems through the economic back door -- incentives via the tax system -- rather than the budgetary front door. Whether his theories on back-door support really work for housing, at the lower end of the income scale as well as the upper, could turn out to be one of the important questions of the 1980s.