Mortgages with a 6 percent interest rate for first-time home buyers, use of a tax-advantaged savings account and IRA for a down payment and wider availability of low-interest FHA loans are some of the highlights of nearly a dozen bills being considered in Congress.
Some of the proposals have already been introduced, while others are expected to be submitted later this month. All could face an uphill battle as lawmakers try to cope with a variety of other pressing issues and struggles to cut federal spending.Despite these pressures, some housing experts are optimistic that Congress this year will approve legislation aimed at easing the nation's affordable-housing problems.
"This could be Congress' `Year of Housing,' " said Don Campbell, staff director of the Senate Housing and Urban Affairs subcommittee and chief housing aide to Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif.
"Some of these proposals are going to cost money, but I think the nation's housing problems have gotten bad enough that some (lawmakers) are ready to do something about it in a big way," Campbell said.
While housing advocates are pleased that so many bills have been introduced early in the legislative session, they're still waiting for what some simply call "The Big One" - The National Affordable Housing Act.
The measure, which may be introduced later by Cranston and Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., could be the most sweeping housing legislation proposed in a decade.
The bill would enhance incentives for builders and investors who provide low- and moderate-income housing and also would provide incentives to encourage more state and local governments to improve housing programs in their area.
For example, the federal government could provide seed money that local agencies would lend to neighborhood developers or could guarantee loans to builders who produce low- and moderate-income housing.
The bill would also make low-down payment FHA loans widely available to buyers in high-cost housing states such as California.
Taxpayers would be allowed to use money in their individual retirement accounts to purchase a house and could also put up to $2,000 a year in the tax-deferred accounts to save for a down payment.
Many parts of the Cranston-D'Amato legislation overlap other Senate proposals. It is expected that most of the other housing-related bills will be merged into the Cranston-D'Amato plan to form an omnibus bill "that will deal with housing in a comprehensive, big-picture manner," said Floyd Williams, a lobbyist for the National Association of Home Builders.
Key provisions of the major proposals now on Capitol Hill would:
-Make the FHA program viable in all areas.
Most FHA loans are 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages that require a down payment of about 5 percent. Since the FHA guarantees the mortgage, lenders are more willing to make a loan to borrowers who have a small down payment or would have trouble qualifying for a conventional mortgage.
But the FHA cannot insure loans of more than $101,250, making the program of little use in high-cost housing areas, where much larger loans are needed to buy a house.
A bill by Rep. David Price, D-N.C., would alter the program so the FHA could make loans on properties whose purchase price did not exceed 95 percent of the median price of homes in the area.
For example, if the area's median price is $240,000, a buyer could purchase a house for $228,000 and still be eligible for an FHA loan.
Price's bill also would allow first-time buyers to get an FHA loan with a 3 percent down payment. In addition, it would permit the FHA to insure adjustable-rate mortgages whose interest rates can move up or down 2 percentage points a year. Currently, the agency can only insure loans with rates that can move just 1 point each year - loans that are difficult to find.
Housing experts say chances of approving such changes to the FHA program are good, in part because it would not cost the Treasury any money. That's because a one-time insurance premium that FHA borrowers pay funds the program.
-Permit Use of IRA money for down payments.
A number of proposals would allow home buyers to use money in their individual retirement accounts, 401k savings plans or other pension plans as a down payment on a home. Now, such money can only be invested in bank certificates of deposits, stocks and bonds and a handful of other items.
Under the Cranston-D'Amato plan, up to $10,000 in retirement savings could be used to purchase a house. The money would be considered an investment - just like a bank certificate of deposit - so the buyer would not have to pay a stiff withdrawal penalty.
The bill also would allow taxpayers to put up to $2,000 a year in the tax-free accounts to save for a down payment.
A bill in the House of Representatives is less generous. Written by Rep. Gerald Kleczka, D-Wis., it would allow first-time buyers to withdraw up to $5,000 from their retirement accounts to purchase a home.
-Make available low-rate loans for first-time buyers.
A bill by Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez, D-Texas, new chairman of the influential Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee, would establish a "National Housing Trust" that would provide a federal subsidy to first-time home buyers. The subsidies would effectively reduce the interest rate on a borrower's 30-year loan to 6 percent.
Gonzalez believes the trust could open the door to millions of people shut out of the housing market, and most housing analysts agree. Yet those same analysts say the bill has a tough road ahead, in part because some budget-conscious lawmakers don't like the proposal's $2 billion-a-year cost.