Building a Housing Bill

THE federal housing bill making its way through Congress has been torn apart and rebuilt a number of times. But it still stands, bolstered by a consensus that something must be done to revitalize federal housing policy. High home prices, a sagging stock of low-cost housing, and increasing homelessness have generated alarms about a shelter crisis in the US. But views on how to address the problem vary widely.

On one side of the issue is Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp. He feels strongly that anything smacking of the traditional methods of channeling federal monies to developers of subsidized units reopens the door to scandal at HUD. He tends to downplay the need for new units - emphasizing, rather, ways of upgrading existing housing. His favorite theme: enabling renters to buy their units and take on the responsibilities of home ownership.

Mr. Kemp's ideas have had a fair hearing in Congress. But many lawmakers don't buy the argument that the dwindling number of low-income units is not the heart of the matter. They point out that vouchers and ownership programs may work where there's a surplus of housing, as in parts of the Southwest, but other part of the country have vacancy rates at or near 1 percent. New construction is needed in those areas, and federal legislation should provide that option.

A reasonable compromise is possible, and may already largely exist in the Affordable Housing Act now on the Senate floor. It would allow a diversity of housing approaches, including some of the innovative programs favored by Kemp as well as ways of leveraging public and private financing to stimulate increased production of new units.

Over the debate hovers a price tag - currently $17.7 billion in 1991 for the Senate bill - that will cause administration heels to dig in. But the country's need for an effective housing policy should waylay veto threats and impel the alterations needed to see a bill through to implementation.

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