The federal government is reviewing whether to allow a real estate agent to collect a fee for helping a borrower find a mortgage.

In a letter to Congress last week, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp indicated his agency is ready to address a long-simmering dispute over a 1974 consumer protection law called the Real Estate Settlement and Procedures Act (RESPA).

The debate revolves around whether real estate agents who collect compensation for arranging mortgages are taking "kickbacks" or legitimate "fees for services rendered."

HUD, according to the letter, is "actively evaluating a number of potential approaches to some of the most important of these consumer-related {RESPA} issues," and will announce its plans this fall.

HUD has started -- and then stopped -- consideration of this issue several times in recent years. It has yet to issue rules to implement amendments Congress made to RESPA in 1983 to resolve the question of what constitutes an illegal kickback as opposed to a legitimate referral fee.

In the absence of any firm rules, Citicorp Mortgage obtained a 1986 opinion from HUD's general counsel blessing a referral fee program known as MortgagePower. The program allows real estate agents to charge borrowers for access to the MortgagePower loans, as long as the borrower agrees in writing to the arrangement.

The MortgagePower fees elsewhere in the country range from $250 to up to 0.5 percent of the loan amount. Locally, real estate agents involved in the MortgagePower program do not charge a fee because only licensed mortgage brokers are allowed to do so by law in Virginia, Maryland and the District.

In May 1988, HUD published proposed rules for public comment that largely embraced the Citicorp mortgage referral concept. Seven months later, the agency appeared to reverse itself when it launched trial balloon set of rules that would prohibit real estate agents from earning both a sales commission and a loan referral fee on the same deal.

The National Association of Realtors is widely credited with mounting a lobbying effort that headed off release of the rules. With only a month left in his term as HUD secretary in the Reagan administration, Samuel J. Pierce effectively left the issue to the Bush administration, where the matter still stands.

The first attempt to break that stalemate came earlier this week, when House housing subcommittee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.) convened a hearing on RESPA during which competing industry interests explained their positions. Although asked to testify, Kemp declined because of scheduling conflicts, but sent Gonzalez the letter outlining his intentions.

During the hearing, the mortgage banking industry, which stands to lose business to real estate broker competitors, argued that the dual roles of representing a home seller and assisting a home buyer with financing pose a conflict.

"It is fundamentally wrong for a real estate broker, who is receiving a substantial commission from the seller of a home, to have a financial interest in where the buyer of the home gets a mortgage," said Ronnie J. Wynn, president of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America and a Montgomery, Ala., lender.

By law, real estate agents owe their allegiance to home sellers who often benefit from a quick closing, said E. Robert Levy, executive director of the Mortgage Bankers Association of New Jersey. Consequently, he said, real estate agents will "refer buyers to lenders who provide products most expeditiously rather than lenders who will necessarily have the best or lowest cost of loans for buyers."

Real estate agents and lenders offering referral programs say the mortgage banking industry is ignoring an evolution in the loan origination process that calls for real estate agents to play a larger role.

Consumers, said Citicorp Mortgage Vice Chairman Leonard N. Druger, want the convenience and time savings of one-stop shopping for a home and a mortgage at the real estate agent's office. "Our customers have told us that the old ways of financing a home are no longer acceptable," he said.

What's more, real estate agents deserve payment for the extra work they now perform with the aid of computerized mortgage shopping networks, said Norman D. Flynn, president of the National Association of Realtors and a Madison, Wis., real estate agent.

The computer systems, Flynn said, allow agents to assist in the first four steps of the loan process -- loan application, loan file assemblage, underwriting of the loan and funding of the mortgage.

"We substitute for the loan originator," Flynn said. "If we do what loan originators and mortgage brokers do, why shouldn't we be entitled to the same kinds of compensation that they are entitled to?"

During the hearing, Gonzalez said he held out some hope HUD could settle the issue if it follows through as promised in the Kemp letter.