The time is right for an all-out push to reverse six years of massive federal cuts in housing and community development, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), head of the housing subcommittee of the Senate Housing, Banking and Urban Affairs Committee, told The Washington Post in an interview this week.

Homeless families and a sharp drop in home ownership among other Americans have helped focus more public attention on housing problems and federal policy than at any other time in recent years, he said.

Reagan administration efforts to limit real estate tax breaks and federal incentives that ensure a steady flow of mortgage credit for homebuyers also has touched off opposition among many in Congress and the housing industry, according to Cranston.

The plight of working families who must live in homeless shelters because they cannot afford the cost of a house or apartment has especially shocked many Americans, he said. The rise in homelessness is "in some significant degree a result of cutbacks in low-income housing assistance."

Cranston said his subcommittee has started work on legislation that would ensure "housing for everyone who needs it within a generation." He said a bill could be ready early next year.

Reaching this goal will require increased spending on federal housing assistance programs -- which have been cut 74 percent over the last six years -- creation of new programs and scrapping others that have not worked, he said. In addition, Cranston said "we will have to do something" to restore some tax incentives for developers and investors taken away by last year's tax reform law.

"Home ownership is beyond the reach and income of a large number of citizens, especially the poor," said Cranston, a former builder. Most poor Americans "live in wretched neighborhoods," whether they rent or own, he said.

"We don't have high hopes of enacting {a bill} next year but it will . . . be ready for the new president" in 1989, when "there will be a major push" for passage, Cranston said. He also hopes to make housing needs a subject of debate by political candidates next year.

The legislation should expand home ownership, particularly for first-time and low-income buyers, and "provide a stable environment for private investors, financial institutions" and others in the housing industry, he said. It also must help low-income Americans "afford decent housing" by preserving existing apartment buildings and providing "construction incentives" for development of housing for groups who need it most, such as the handicapped, elderly and large families, he said.

Separate legislation also must be passed soon, he said, to help preserve thousands of privately owned, subsidized low-income housing units that will soon be free of regulatory restraints that kept rents down. Without legislative action, owners of many units will be free to convert them to higher-priced rentals, some as soon as within the next few months. The majority of subsidized units could be converted within the next five years.

Other provisions of the new housing bill the subcommittee hopes to have ready by the next Congress should help state and local government efforts to produce housing, according to Cranston.

Policies supported by the Reagan administration, including caps on bond financing and cuts in Urban Development Action Grants and other programs, have undercut local and state abilities to provide housing, he said. Although some states are producing more housing than ever before, "only the federal government has the capacity to offer consistent financial backing for housing programs," Cranston said.

But the legislation that is ultimately introduced must "be realistic in light of budget pressures," he said.

Bipartisan sensitivity to the federal deficit is expected to discourage congressional approval of major new expenditures during the next few years, despite the renewed interest in housing needs.

Cranston said the subcommittee will "consult everyone who wants to be consulted and maybe some who don't" to avoid springing a fully developed bill on an unprepared Congress.

To that end, he has appointed James Rouse -- a prominent Maryland developer who is famous for his waterside festival malls and who recently has been building low-income housing -- to head a task force of "people with hands-on experience in housing" to make recommendations. Cranston has also asked housing organizations and advocacy groups for their views.

The Joint Center for Housing Studies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University also will be providing a series of papers on housing needs, trends and recent research.

William C. Apgar Jr., of the MIT-Harvard center, said he is "putting together an overview" of long-term housing trends, including housing quality, costs and needs of low-income families. The study will draw from research conducted over the past several years, and include analyses of conditions in different regions of the nation.

"There has been a tremendous loss of low-cost, private, nonsubsidized housing over the last decade," Apgar said in an interview last week. Despite record construction of new apartments, the number of units low-income families can afford "continues to decline."

One recent study, Apgar said, shows that in areas where the number of empty rental units has grown, the vacancies have been in apartments renting for $500 a month and up. While rents are rising for all types of housing, "preliminary data" show the cost of low-quality units -- those that generally house the poor -- is rising much more swiftly than that for more expensive apartments.

About 2 million housing units that rented for less than $250 a month were lost to poor Americans between 1974 and 1983 because they were demolished or upgraded to market-rate rentals. During the same period about the same number of subsidized units were produced, "so we are holding our own so far."

Three out of four renters, however, live in unsubsidized housing. With rents rising, investment in rental property is becoming more attractive and more apartment buildings will be rehabilitated or demolished, Apgar said. As a result "poor renters don't have a prayer in the private rental market."