A small-scale, experimental program to reward community work with vouchers good toward the down payment or closing costs on a first home may start next spring.

Part-time volunteers who spend two weekends each month and two weeks during the year performing community service work will receive $2,000 in "sweat equity" for each year of service. The National and Community Service Act approved by Congress in October authorizes creation of a demonstration program.

Participants in the pilot program would have to make a three-year commitment to take part in community service efforts that, according to the new law, address "unmet educational, human, environmental and public safety needs, especially those needs relating to poverty." The community service program must be overseen by a state.

Volunteers could apply the voucher only toward educational expenses or the upfront costs related to the purchase of a first home.

A state taking part in the experiment must match or exceed the $1,000 annual stipend the federal government will provide for each volunteer.

Conceivably, a married couple would raise $12,000 to put toward housing expenses after fulfilling the minimum three-year service commitment. Participation is limited to those 17 years of age or older who are U.S. citizens or lawfully admitted for permanent residence.

Unlike several housing initiatives Congress recently approved, this plan already has funding to move forward. The key sponsor of the demonstration effort, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), capitalized on her position as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees independent federal agencies to provide for the program in a budget bill.

As a demonstration, however, the program will take little more than a nick out of the upfront financial burden facing first-time buyers, said Stephen Driesler, chief lobbyist for the National Association of Realtors, who nonetheless welcomed the move.

For the fiscal year ending next September, the federal government's share of vouchers awarded under the program cannot exceed $22 million. However, roughly half of that amount is likely to go toward a separate program included in the demonstration that awards educational assistance to full-time volunteers.

Glenn Roberts, Mikulski's legislative director at the time the bill was approved, estimated that about half the part-time volunteers will use their stipends for housing expenses and half for the education option.

The law stipulates that states must compete to be among the five selected for the pilot program that includes the housing component.

Maryland, Roberts said, is a particularly good prospect for inclusion in the demonstration because of Gov. William Donald Schaeffer's "interest in volunteers and volunteerism."

Roberts said April 1 is the earliest date he expects the program to become fully operational.

Would-be home buyers could undoubtedly raise more cash than available through the voucher plan by taking on a part-time job, Roberts acknowledged. "But then you just stand there making hamburgers," he said.

In contrast, volunteers under the plan "get the opportunity to be involved in an interesting and creative way with their communities and neighborhoods," Roberts said.

The program, he added, is not for everyone. "It is going to appeal to somebody who wants to volunteer but cannot justify the time. You are not going to get rich off of it," he said.

Driesler also noted that participants will not have to pay the taxes or withholding on the volunteer compensation that they would on a paycheck. Moreover, he said the voucher approach is the equivalent of "forced savings" toward a house, whereas the temptation to spend regular pay is often irresistible.

Michelle Meier, legislative counsel for Consumers Union, said the volunteer plan "sounds like a good deal in concept and hopefully will be at implementation, too."

Mikulski, Roberts said, hopes to expand the housing and education program for volunteers into a "national, full-blown" effort within a few years.

"We hope that the other states {that are not demonstration-program participants} will be literally banging down the doors of Congress saying, 'This is a terrific, wonderful program that helps out young people, provides community service, does not cost a lot of money and we would like to have it in our state as well,' " Roberts said.