Not the way to help housing

If the pell-mell rush in Congress to enact a new multibillion-dollar housing bill is any guide, then all that talk about bringing the federal budget under control is probably not very realistic. A housing measure recently passed by the House on a 349-to-55 vote would provide between $3 billion and $5 billion to middle-income homebuyers over the next several years to help subsidize mortgage payments. Mortgages eligible for such subsidies would range between $67,500 and would provide up to $5 billion over a five-year period.

Such blatant special-interest legislation should be vetoed by President Reagan.

There is no disputing the current difficulty within the housing industry. With interest rates on the order of 17 percent, and with new houses costing $70, 000 and more, the new-home market is in a slump. One out of every five construction workers is unemployed; housing starts are at record lows, falling 6 .4 percent in April; the timber and logging industry is depressed. Not least of all, the situation has created a terrible social problem. For the first time in the past decade or so, millions of families are finding themselves totally locked out of the housing market.

However, the massive federal subsidy proposed by the housing legislation will not so much prove a genuine solution to the current downturn as it will merely exacerbate existing problems. What is most needed to help the struggling housing industry is to bring down sky-high interest rates. To do that Congress must take firm steps in reducing the high budget deficits anticipated in the next several years. Obviously, any new legislation on the magnitude of the housing bill is going to increase, not reduce, those deficits. And such a big federal outlay will merely lead to demands from other ailing industries for similar bail-out legislation.

Two final points are in order. First, the housing industry has a genuine opportunity to rethink the types of housing that could be made available in the 1980s. Many of the expensive homes now being built could be substantially simplified, thus leading to savings in overall building costs.

There is also the possibility of conversion and rehabilitation of existing units. Some experts believe that new housing starts will range only between 1.4 million and 1.5 million units annually over the next few years, compared to well over 2 million new units annually during much of the past decade. But that need not mean an insufficiency of housing. Millions of older housing units throughout the US could be rehabilitated for the growing market of the 1980s, as more members of the ''baby boom'' generation enter the home-buying age group.

Second, the housing industry has to come to grips with the whole issue of spiraling labor costs that helped boost new home prices throughout much of the past decade.

President Reagan, as he has promised, should continue to oppose -- and, if necessary, veto -- the costly new housing bill now making its way through Congress.

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