For a government task force on a national crisis, the President's Commission on Housing is showing uncharacteristic restraint.
In years past, presidential commissions were incubators for bold new 10- and 15-point programs for solving the nation's woes with formulas that usually would involve increasing amounts of government money or regulation.
But members of the president's commission on housing seem more inclined to the one-point approach. The only real solution to the housing crisis, they say, is lower interest rates, which can be brought about only by a stronger economy and reduced inflation.
"As long as interest rates are up, there is not much we can do" to provide affordable housing, commission Chairman William McKenna, a Los Angeles attorney, said in an interview. "The only answer is to stabilize the economy. There is no other answer."
In line with the commission members' Reaganesque philosophy, the options it is considering to the issues before it run a rather narrow gamut -- basically ranging from free-enterprise solutions to private-sector initiatives.
"Government will have less and less a part of funding for housing in the future. We're emphasizing private-sector reliance," Gordon Luce, chairman of the San Diego Federal Savings and Loan Association and chairman of the commission's Private Sector Financing Committee, said in a separate interview.
The commission was formed in June to make recommendations to the secretary of Housing and Urban Development and to the president. It is to make an interim report at the end of October and a final report in April.
Meanwhile, HUD Undersecretary Donald Hovde says the department is anxiously awaiting the commission's recommendations before establishing a housing policy.
At the same time, the department's top housing officials and the commission members clearly are all operating on the same wave-length.
Housing policy "will take a whole new approach. The private sector is going to have to do it," said Philip Winn, assistant secretary for housing.
"The only way to make housing affordable is to curtail inflation. That will be the major effort," Hovde adds.
The main goal of the commission, McKenna said, is to make homes affordable to the first-time homebuyer. Among other things, this means focusing attention on individuals rather than industries, he said.
This orientation carries over to proposals on low-income housing assistance, as well.
The most specific of the recommendations in the Oct. 30 interim report is likely to be on revisions in public housing assistance programs, since these have a significant impact on the federal budget, and HUD is putting together budget recommendations.
There appears to be a consensus on the commission to propose some sort of housing voucher system -- involving direct payments to low-income individuals -- to replace housing production subsidies for the construction of Section 8 low-income housing. This proposal, which also parallels current thinking at HUD, is designed to cut costs by focusing the housing assistance on people who need it the most.
The commission consists of 22 members, soon to become 25, and is divided into four committees: on the economy, federal housing programs and alternatives, government regulation, and private-sector financing.
The vice chairwoman of the commission is former HUD secretary Carla Hills. Other members were drafted from various housing-related sectors and include savings and loan executives, former federal and state housing officials, politicians, professors, lawyers, a builder and a real estate broker.
Chairman McKenna, 67, began his career with the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, worked for the federal housing agency that was the predecessor of HUD and in 1955 formed his own Los Angeles law firm, specializing in real estate and financial institutions.
The commission also wants less government intervention in the area of key concern for today's average home buyer and seller: home financing and interest rates.
Financing committee head Luce said that deregulation of interest rate ceilings and other prohibitions on S&Ls, such as allowing them to make more short-term consumer loans, will help restore the moribund industry to profitability -- which ultimately will mean more funds available from S&Ls for housing.
At the same time, "We need more than S&L financing, which has had the largest part of the pie," he said.
Among the alternative sources of future financing the committee is examining are money market funds, private pension funds and state and local government pension funds.
The commission also wants to find trims that can be made in government regulations at all levels, which McKenna said adds between 18 and 28 percent to the cost of a finished home today.
Such regulations include ineligibility of condominiums for HUD mortgage programs and limits on lot sizes, streets and building codes, according to HUD officials.
Both McKenna and Luce mentioned one possible way government could actively help bring housing costs down -- buy cutting loose some of its own unused land to make it available for new housing.
"The land's there," McKenna said. "Making it available might break some of these high prices." For example, at least 48 percent of California is government-owned, he said, with significant amounts in or near urban areas.
The land could be parceled out in some kind of homesteading program, developed by nonprofit associations or auctioned off to developers, for example, he explained.
One area where views differ in the commission is on the future role of quasi-governmental housing institutions such as the Federal National Mortgage Administration (Fannie Mae) and Government National Mortgage Corp. (Ginnie Mae).
McKenna, for one, said his personal view is that these institutions should stop straddling the fence between government and private. "If the government has to pick up the tab for any losses , they should be totally government; if not, they should be totally private," he said.
A controversial issue the commission will try to reach agreement on is tax-exempt housing bonds. A few years ago, these became an increasingly popular way for states and local governments to help finance mortgages for their citizens. They also became very expensive to the federal government in lost tax revenue, and there were reported abuses of the mechanism, so Congress passed a law limiting their use.
The purpose of the housing bonds is the same as for the multitude of "creative financing" techniques that have proliferated recently: to circumvent today's 17 percent interest rates that have put home ownership out of reach for most first-time home buyers.