A constructive approach to the housing crunch
Interest rates cannot fall far enough or fast enough to resurrect the housing industry. Nor is Congress going to resurrect the multibillion-dollar mortgage subsidy vetoed by President Reagan this spring. There are two much saner ways to revitalize the housing industry that should be acceptable to the White House, Congress, and everyone who looks to our real estate system to provide a living or a home.
The first thing the President and Congress need to do is to tune up existing savings programs. Making everyone eligible for Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), expanding Keogh plans, and introducing the All-Savers certificate were good ways to get more affluent citizens to make money available for savings and investments. But only short-term investments, not housing.
The President should ask Congress to restrict the use of these funds for loans that are most important to the long-term economic health. Housing should have top priority.
Targeting the use of savings is not a new idea or alien to the Reagan philosophy. The All-Savers certificate was tar-geted in theory, but in practice lenders used a number of loopholes to avoid tying the money into long-term housing loans.
The second part of a solution is a variation on a World War II savings program. The President should create a Home Loan Victory Stamp Program that would target tax-deductible savings and tax-free interest for housing.
The beauty of the World War II Victory Stamp program was that even schoolchildren could participate. It is where many of us first learned methodical saving. We learned more easily because the purpose was clear and the mechanism simple and it promised us a better future.
Here is how the Home Loan Victory Stamp Program might work:
1. Banks and the government sell $5 housing stamps. The savings institutions and the government keep the money to lend for housing.
2. When a saver has 20 stamps he or she turns them in for a bond. The $100 bond is deductible from taxable income, just like the Keogh or the IRA contribution.
3. The bond issuer pays high interest as for an All-Savers certificate. The interest is not taxed and is payable at maturity or when the bond is cashed.
4. The bond holder can use the bonds in several ways:
* Cash them in any time and pay the full tax on the interest and maybe a small penalty.
* Cash them in at maturity and pay a capital-gains-style tax on accumulated interest, a reward for having helped.
* Use the value of the bonds at any time (plus accumulated interest) as the down payment on a home. Taxes are paid only under normal rules for taxing the eventual sale of a home.
Targeting existing tax-privileged savings programs and creating a Home Loan Victory Stamp Program would generate a boom in home buying and building, the industry that traditionally leads the economy out of a recession.
Banks and savings institutions would get badly needed funds. Savings and loan institutions would again concentrate on their primary mission: financing home loans. With a sense of mission and purpose restored for small savers, Americans would once again learn how to get into the savings habit.
These solutions would require some short-term loss of tax revenues, but they are true ''supply-side'' tactics. If we are to go with the President's own view of the housing industry, it is as fundamental to American democracy as the defense in-dustry.
In April the President dedicated Private Property Week by declaring homeownership ''essential to the establishment and maintenance of all our other precious liberties.'' According to the President, one of those liberties is free enterprise. If so, he should be willing to support the kind of plan that helped us defend our system in World War II.
Best of all, this plan has bipartisan appeal. It fits the Republican desire to see people helping themselves with minimal government interference and subsidy. It fits the Democratic desire for economic justice and tax breaks for the lower- and middle-income citizen. It is good for the banks and good for the country. The two parties, of course, could fight about whose face or what kind of home goes on the stamps and bonds.