Congress pursues $15 billion housing bill despite veto threat

The first proposed federal housing bill in seven years, which the President vows to veto, is not intended to be the last word, say politicians and housing advocates. The compromise package, which would allow $15 billion over the next two years for housing initiatives, passed the House last week 391 to 1 and is slated to be considered by the Senate today. It is considered to set the stage for a future comprehensive housing package for the 1990s.

``This is putting the structure in place,'' says Grace Morgan, an aide on housing issues for Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R) of New York, one of the sponsors of the bill. ``It's saying [housing] is a priority.''

``You can't consider this bill in the same league with what we have had or what we need,'' says Richard Nelson of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO). ``It's a stop-gap measure.''

The bill includes assistance programs and community development projects. The White House objects to the bill, saying it would be costlier in the long run.

While the Senate is expected to pass the bill, there is concern over whether it can come up with the 67 votes needed to override a presidential veto. And if the bill is passed, it is uncertain whether Congress would actually appropriate the money authorized in the bill, particularly in the light of recent White House-congressional talks on cutting the federal deficit.

The bill comes at a time when a broad range of groups concerned with housing are working together to find ways to address housing problems throughout the United States. A National Housing Task Force, headed by developer James Rouse and David Maxwell of the Federal National Mortgage Association, is seeking ideas from housing experts around the country. The members encompass a wide spectrum of political views, and their findings will be shared in December with Sens. D'Amato and Alan Cranston (D) of California, who are the major sponsors of the housing initiative.

Housing innovations include wider support for nonprofit housing corporations, such as the one that built moderate-income housing in the South Bronx. Housing trusts, linkage programs that tie new development to increased low-income housing, and equity funds that bring corporate dollars into a pool to leverage community development are other ideas being examined. Housing groups say federal involvement is still necessary.

Housing problems have reached crisis proportions in urban centers, suburbs, and rural areas, say housing experts. NAHRO estimates that more than 25 percent of American households cannot find decent, safe housing at affordable prices. These Americans live in substandard, overcrowded homes, or they are spending an unreasonable portion of their income on housing. Typically, the poorer a household, the higher the percentage of its income is spent on housing. And there is the very visible and increasing number of homeless citizens.

``Look at the homeless problem,'' says Nancy Elwood, a staffer for Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, who is involved in housing issues. ``I think people are putting two and two together.''

The fact that Congress is beginning to address the issue of housing in defiance of the White House is seen as a bellwether by some. There is an admission that during the last seven years, the inattention to housing issues, as well as shrinking federal housing assistance, have taken a heavy toll on low- and moderate-income Americans. Housing assistance has diminished by 70 percent since 1981.

Ms. Morgan of D'Amato's staff says that housing will continue to be a difficult issue. It will take major restructuring of national policy, she says, pointing out that during the last six years many ideas have been brought to Congress, only to lie on the shelf.

But Ms. Elwood sees hope in the substantial bipartisan support the current housing bill has received.

Mr. Nelson of NAHRO expects a presidential veto, and says it is evident that the Reagan administration does not want a housing bill. He is looking toward a future bill.

``We are going to see next year the beginnings of a debate on national housing policy, and the role of the federal government,'' says Nelson. ``The need has so increased. We are not going to reshape policy without some additional money.''

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