Removing barriers to a 'home of one's own'

Is the once widely shared goal of afford-able housing for all Americans in danger of disappearing in this era of high interest rates and soaring home prices? Surely US political leaders should take all possible steps to ensure that this does not come to pass - and that appropriate housing continues to be available to all persons, whether they be first-time home buyers, renters with children, welfare families, or the elderly.

Unfortunately, the summer hike in mortgage interest rates continues to act as a severe impediment to home sales. Mortgage rates are now running in the 13.5 percent to 14 percent range, up from 11.5 percent to 12 percent this past June. And what that boost in mortgage rates has meant, of course, is a drop in sales. According to Commerce Department figures released this week, new-home sales in July fell by some 6.5 percent. If interest rates were to ease somewhat, sales could be expected to jump. But any increase in mortgage rates - or rates remaining at current levels - would likely have an adverse effect on future home sales.

The US housing problem, however, involves far more than just persons wanting to buy a house. Indeed, there is a pressing need for new rental housing in many communities, as older multifamily units have been pulled off the market or have been converted to condominiums. The lack of new rental units has been one of the factors explaining rental increases in many communities.

What can be done to expand the nation's housing stock? And what can and should be the role of government?

* The first step, as recognized by the housing industry itself, is self-evident: Congress and the Reagan administration need to reduce future budget deficits, expected to be in the range of $200 billion or more. The concern about the deficits applies mainly to 1984 and 1985, when heavy federal intervention in credit markets could dry up funds for housing. Currently, lenders say, there is no shortage of mortgage money. The problem is that under existing high mortgage rates a large percentage of American families are not able to qualify for loans.

* To help meet the need of some first-time buyers, states might well consider making more money available to lenders at special low-interest rates. Some states, for example, are now using state pension funds for such mortgage programs. Some states are also granting tax incentives to developers for restoring older or tax-delinquent properties.

* State and local governments should end exclusionary zoning and land use laws. Massachusetts, for example, links state-administered development funds to the willingness of a local government to end zoning barriers. In California, local governments are required to assess ways of meeting housing needs.

Zoning changes that would be most helpful include allowing ''echo housing'' in a community. That means building second units behind existing single-family houses. Such homes are often purchased by elderly citizens. Another step: allowing ''manufactured'' or ''fabricated'' housing, as now permitted in New Hampshire. Site development costs, which in many jurisdictions are passed along to the developer and the home buyer (and thus push up the overall cost of the house), could be shared with the general public, such as by letting a portion of road improvement costs be paid out of general revenues.

Providing appropriate housing remains a challenge. But with intelligent action by lawmakers steps can be taken to ensure that the goal of a ''home of one's own'' remains within the reach of all Americans.

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