The United States - which has long prided itself on being a nation where a majority of its citizens are homeowners - badly needs a national housing policy. Soaring prices and high mortgage interest rates have slammed the doors shut on hundreds of thousands of American families seeking a house. As a result, the housing industry has been in a slump, with starts expected to be in the neighborhood of 1.1 million units this year, the same as 1981.
National policymakers need to tackle the housing issue with vigor and determination. The issue, after all, is directly tied up with the well-being of the nation, since owning one's own home, no matter how humble, has been one of the driving ideas of the ''American dream.'' Not only does the frustration of that goal promote cynicism, but because so many persons - particularly younger families - are forced to remain in rental housing, additional pressures are placed on the apartment market. This, in turn, means higher and higher rents, and the displacement of poorer families, or families with children.
Fortunately, the current decline in interest rates - with conventional 30 -year mortgages slipping to 14 percent in some areas - promises relief. The drop in the prime rate has been perhaps even more crucial, since that means lower costs for construction loans and inventory financing for builders. Whether such declines will rejuvenate the industry, however, is still uncertain and, to a large extent, dependent on consumer confidence about the future direction of the economy itself. Most economists attribute the spurt in housing starts in September (by 14 percent) less to falling interest rates than to an election-year infusion of new federally subsidized housing units.
Among elements that should be part of a national housing policy:
* New federal and local tax policies should be devised to encourage home ownership. Such plans are common in many industrial nations, such as Britain and France. One approach might be to allow all persons to take out an Individual Retirement Account, or Keogh plan, that is earmarked solely for housing and that could be drawn upon without financial penalty before normal retirement years. Another alternative: establishing a ''victory stamp'' savings program, patterned along the lines of the victory stamp of World War II, with the tax-deferred interest earmarked for a home purchase.
* Special tax incentives should be provided for home construction in designated areas and for restoring older units in central cities. Also, tax breaks should be given to financial institutions, pension funds, insurance firms , etc., that invest in residential mortgages or securities.
* Although Americans still prefer the single-family home over condominiums or other types of cluster units, communities might well consider townhouse construction. Once such units have been developed, the public has tended to overcome its initial prejudice.
* Cities should consider lifting rent control laws to encourage construction of new apartment units. Also, building code requirements for new housing should be simplified.
Since World War II some 65 percent or so of all Americans have lived in their own homes - one of the highest percentages of home ownership in the world. It would be unfortunate if the nation's policymakers were to ignore taking steps to allow the young families of today to realize that same dream.