The President's Commission on Housing has reached a consensus on a free-market housing policy that leaves plenty of room for attack from the industry it was created to save.
The commission, made up of like-minded experts, finished its decision-making last week, and final proposals will be sent to President Reagan and Housing Secretary Samuel Pierce at the end of April.
A result of nine months of effort, the wide-ranging proposals include massive deregulation of building and zoning, more reliance on the private sector (a.k.a less government money), considerable propping up for the beleaguered thrift industry and even a couple of billion dollars in tax incentives for individuals or lenders to put money into home ownership.
It did not, however, attempt a quick kill of the housing industry's arch-enemy--intractably high interest rates. The panel rejected a "quick-fix" approach to today's problems and fell back on the president's overall economic program as its best hope for the long-term health of the industry.
The housing industry is unlikely to be satisfied, because the recommendations do not include the massive assistance it feels is needed for an industry faced with crisis.
In fact, the commission has been criticized as paying more attention to that companion in economic misery, the savings and loan industry, than to the housing sector per se. The panel is dominated by representatives of the thrift industry, who argue that the future of the housing industry cannot be separated from the long-range health of the institutions that traditionally have provided its financial backing.
One program the commission did not endorse, however, was the All Savers certificates plan, which was last year's grand idea for saving the thrift industry and at the same time giving a boost to housing.
The tax-free certificates were to provide a flood of money for the S&Ls to put into mortgages, but so far the results have been negligible, according to housing experts and the administration. Treasury Secretary Donald Regan recently announced that the administration would let the program expire when it was supposed to, at the end of this year, without an attempt at revival.
The views of the commission have closely paralleled the thoughts and actions of the administration and its housing department all along, with each feeding on the other for information and justification.
For example, it will be rather anticlimactic when the president reads that his housing commission is proposing that subsidies for low-income housing be switched to a housing voucher system of set grants to individuals, from the current reliance on construction of apartments where rents are subsidized.
Reagan already has proposed vouchers as part of the fiscal 1983 budget. Plans to do this were in the works before the commission took a vote on the idea.
But another proposal runs counter to basic administration philosophy and already has received an abrupt rejection from Pierce. That idea was to in essence prohibit rent control, such as that in effect in the District.
While agreeing with the commission that rent control is bad policy, Pierce immediately slapped down the prohibition proposal, saying it would abrogate the administration's basic beliefs about local autonomy.
Commission Vice Chairman Carla Hills, reflecting on the secretary's words, which came less than 24 hours after the panel had officially endorsed the idea, said this merely showed "healthy disagreement" on the issue.
"We are making recommendations to the president, and I don't expect him to agree with all of them either," she said.
The ones in most danger of presidential disagreement probably are those that cost money--and the ones with the most backing from the industry.
The most expensive recommendation would provide tax exemptions for Individual Housing Accounts, special funds used to save for a down payment on a house. This could cost as must as $2 billion a year but is estimated to stimulate sales of 600,000 homes a year.
Another is for a housing block grant to supplement the voucher program. The grants would go to local governments to provide low-income housing, either through rehabilitation or new construction, and is estimated to cost around $1.6 billion a year.
Lenders also would get a tax break for increasing investment in home mortgages under another plan that is estimated to cost between $100 million and $500 million.
One form of federal assistance to housing that has become controversial is government backing of home loans provided by the Government National Mortgage Association (Ginnie Mae) and the Federal Home Administration (FHA).
The administration has reduced the amount of mortgage commitments allowed under both programs and has announced it plans to target the government's backing more to the first-time buyer and to those in inner cities. Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman has made it clear that he would like to eliminate the federal mortgage insurance programs altogether and turn over their functions to the private sector, while Pierce has said he would retain FHA at current levels indefinitely.
The commission has proposed phasing out the programs as the private market actually takes them over, rather than imposing commitment ceilings that would be reduced each year regardless of what the private sector has done.
"We have no intention of eliminating Ginnie Mae until the private markets have taken it over," said Commission member Bernard Carl. The panel has no idea when that might be, he added.
The commission pulled no punches in its endorsement of condominium conversions. Its recommendation mentions that it "considered the concerns of tenants affected by such conversion, including the needs of lower-income elderly households."
After considering this, the panel decided it supports conversions because of the "substantial benefits to the individual and the community of the homeownership opportunities" they create.
The commission also proposed a major restructuring of public housing, including less federal funding. It also envisions local housing authorities disposing of public housing property entirely and finding other ways of housing low-income families.