A proposed national housing policy, based on the premise that a decent home is the right of every American, calls for sweeping changes in current laws and would require a major shift in spending away from the military budget to cover the $69 billion price tag, according to its framers.
Direct capital expenditures for extensive new construction and major rehabilitation of existing public housing, a guarantee of lifetime tenure for residents, and changes in the credit and tax codes are proposed. All federal funds spent on housing would go into "social," or non-profit, housing for low- and moderate-income Americans only if the program were implemented.
Bills now being drafted at the request of Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) will incorporate the four major legislative proposals in the plan, according to Dan Lindheim, an aide to Dellums. He said Dellums hopes to introduce the legislation by early August. Hearings before the House housing and community development subcommittee probably will be held early next year, said a subcommittee spokesman.
About 30 East Coast and California housing experts have worked for two years to write the extensive policy document, which is a project of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies. A major shift in national policy is needed, according to the experts, because poor Americans face housing problems of growing dimensions. Rents are increasing almost twice as fast as tenants' incomes, the housing stock is dwindling as deterioration leads to abandonment, neighborhoods are growing dirtier, noisier and more dangerous, and homelessness is becoming a "significant problem in many places," they say.
"We are in the midst of a long and protracted housing crisis" affecting poor Americans with the prospect that "increasing numbers of the middle class will be drawn into it," said Richard Applebaum, of the University of California in Santa Barbara, one of the framers of the proposal.
The creators of the proposed program say they have no "illusions" that it will be "adopted in the immediate future, in the present political climate. But we firmly believe that as the housing situation worsens, these measures will come to have broad appeal."
At the root of the nation's problems is the treatment of housing as a commodity rather than as a "social good," they said. "Housing in our society is produced, owned, operated and sold in ways designed to maximize profits rather than to provide needed shelter," they said. The result is waste, inefficiency, a highly volatile housing economy, shortages and "a growing gap between income and housing costs." In addition, the "dream" of homeownership has receded for a "significant number" of middle-income Americans because a weakening economy is resulting in "steady erosion" of their living standard, the plan's creators say.
A major goal of the proposal is to move more low- and moderate-income housing out of the private sector into public, or community-based, ownership, which the plan calls "social ownership." Other aims are to reduce housing's dependence on private finance, reduce the vulnerability of the credit economy to recession, eliminate discrimination and allocate housing on the basis of need, not affordability.
The high cost of the ambitious proposals drew criticism from Morton Schussheim of the Congressional Research Service, speaking at a recent housing conference in Alexandria. The $69 billion figure, the estimate of what it would cost for the first year if the plan were fully implemented, is nearly eight times the amount now being allocated for low-income housing, he said.
"If we could cut, say, $60 billion out of the defense budget, I think there are some other advocates out there in the health world who would say, give us a chunk of that . . . . People who are concerned with education would ask for some of that $60 billion. Others would argue for income-transfers to the poor, and some would say let's just cut the budget deficit," Schussheim said.
The four major legislative proposals are:
*A housing production and finance act to channel all federal financing into "social sector" housing for low- and moderate-income households. Local governments, residents' organizations or other local entities would be able to own social housing, with all of them subject to control by the residents of the housing. Any developer could seek contracts to build this housing at first, but eventually the work would be restricted to non-profit developers.
Money for the projects would be provided through direct appropriations in the federal budget. This process would "end reliance on credit, eliminate debt service and mortgage repayment," Applebaum said. "We estimate this will reduce the cost of these units by roughly half."
Funds also would be available for operating subsidies when needed to keep costs at a level the residents can afford, and "affordability" would be calculated using a formula taking into account a family's other living expenses. The construction of 200,000 new housing units and rehabilitation of 400,000 annually called for in the bill would cost about $28 billion.
*A conversion act to provide for converting privately owned housing to social sector housing. Money would be made available for the purchase, at market rates, of low- and moderate-income housing on which mortgages are paid, and to rehabilitate substandard housing if owners agreed to deed the property to social sector housing owners, such as local governments or resident associations. The legislation would allow purchase of single-family homes for social sector housing, with the owners to be guaranteed occupancy at affordable rents for the rest of their lives. Homeowners facing foreclosure also would be able to deed their property to a social owner, and get a lifetime tenancy guarantee. The 100,000 units to be acquired annually through these and similar conversion plans would cost about $2.5 billion.
*A home protection and improvement act covering existing public housing. It would prohibit eviction except for "gross violation of community standards," protect against loss of social units to conversion or demolition, provide for capital grants and housing code enforcement to prevent neglect of the property, make available money to keep operating costs affordable by poor families and give them funds and technical aid for managing their homes.
*A private tenant protection act to protect these renters from "arbitrary eviction, excessive rent increases and undermaintenance," according to a preliminary draft of the legislation. Federal block grants and other funds would be tied to local compliance with the provisions of this act.
Proposed tax reforms would include elimination of the homeowner deductions for interest and property taxes. Creators of the proposed policy say the biggest federal subsidies for housing now go to upper-middle-class homeowners through these deductions, which cost the federal government $49.4 billion in 1984, or "more than has been spent under all HUD assisted housing programs since the inception of public housing in 1937." Taxpayers in the top 10 percent income range get 60 percent of these deductions.
Other reforms would do away with accelerated depreciation on rental property immediately, and eventually eliminate all depreciation, establish a windfall profits tax on all sales of rental housing, eliminate tax-exempt bonds, and provide for property tax relief for low-income owners, luxury housing taxes with proceeds going to social housing programs, and progressive property taxes, with higher rates on the most valuable property.
Proposed changes in credit laws are aimed at steering private credit toward social housing through measures such as differential taxes on credit institutions to reward preferred lending, loan set-aside requirements for social housing, lowered reserve requirements for institutions meeting social housing goals and below-market interest rate requirements for a portion of loans to social housing projects.
Some low-income housing advocates say the nation's credit system "is the central problem to be attacked" in the creation of social housing. Interest payments make up about two-thirds of the cost of homeownership, one expert said.
Home mortgages have made up about a third of all private debt in the country for the past 15 years, and in 1980 totaled more than $1 trillion. Residential mortgages represented 41 percent of the gross national product in 1980, an increase from 36 percent in 1970, according to the framers of the proposed housing policy.