Candidates want you to feel at home. Dukakis and Bush push ideas to help more Americans buy housing

The median price of a house in Boston last quarter reached $182,900, a level that gives new meaning to the words ``down payment.'' Now, the presidential candidates are trying to find ways to woo those potential home buyers who cannot afford the deposit on such housing.

Michael Dukakis, painfully aware of the Massachusetts numbers, is proposing that first-time home buyers be allowed to use the savings accumulated in Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), and other retirement/savings funds for down-payment purposes. There is no age or income limit on the Dukakis proposal.

Last month, George Bush embraced middle-class home buyers who cannot afford down payments with his own alternatives, including reducing the size of down payments to as low as $1,000, and raising the mortgage limits on loans made by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Mr. Dukakis has made a similar proposal.

Both approaches have fairly wide support in Washington.

``We made similar proposals about six months ago,'' says Lyle Gramley, chief economist at the Mortgage Bankers Association. ``It strikes a very responsive chord.'' Likewise, the National Association of Realtors says it endorses the concepts.

Getting them through Congress, however, might be much more difficult. A staff member on the House Ways and Means Committee says such programs would be viewed as benefits targeted toward a specific group of people. ``Are these benefits more important than tax credits for education?'' the staffer wonders.

It depends on who you ask.

As Mr. Gramley notes, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) would not be too enthusiastic about broadening the use of IRAs. ``They probably would look on it as a wedge for other uses,'' says Gramley, a former Federal Reserve Board governor.

The IRS, for its part, says it does not comment on pending, or proposed legislation.

However, former IRS commissioner Roscoe Egger says the idea is terrible. ``When I first heard the proposal, I said, `Here we go again,' allowing people to deduct the funds and then borrow them back. It flies in the face of tax policy to try to solve social problems with the tax code,'' says Mr. Egger, now a tax partner at Price Waterhouse in Washington.

One of the difficulties of assessing the proposals is getting a handle on how many people actually would use their IRAs for down payments. In 1986, 15.7 million returns were filed with $38.2 billion in deductions, according to the IRS. However, there are no reliable statistics on the total number of IRAs, Keogh accounts - which are for the self-employed - or 401(k) accounts, which are set up by employers to defer taxes on employee income.

A 1984 Census Bureau report found that only 8.5 percent of the people who have IRAs rent apartments, whereas 26 percent already own their own homes. The report found that 19.5 percent of respondents had IRAs or Keogh accounts. Only 31 percent below age 44 had them.

One of those who is still renting is New Yorker Sally Irving, a confessed Republican, Ms. Irving is enthusiastic about the Dukakis proposal. ``I thought it was great,'' she says. Another New Yorker, Peter Tarnoff, says the idea would help his two sons afford housing. ``Unless they get some help, they will never be able to afford housing,'' says Tarnoff.

It would probably also appeal to those who are trying to buy homes in Governor Dukakis's neighborhood in Brookline. Local real estate agents report homes in the Dukakis neighborhood have appreciated 25 to 50 percent annually. John Campbell, president of his own firm, reports selling a house this summer for $300,000 that was almost across the street from the Governor's home. FHA only guarantees loans up to $101,250 in ``high-cost areas.''

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