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Housing should be a priority

DECENT housing is something no American family should have to do without. That commitment was made decades ago, in the federal Housing Act of 1949. For many years the United States progressed toward that goal. Recently, however, the goal has blurred. Home ownership rates are dropping, and the number of families living in substandard housing is up.

It's time to reaffirm the commitment to good housing.

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The country stands on the brink of a crisis, according to many experts in the field.

The clearest danger signals: growing numbers of homeless Americans and the increasing difficulty of young families in buying a first home.

Those phenomena are connected.

When families can't buy into the housing market, they have to rent. In many parts of the US, particularly around major cities, rental housing is at a premium, with prices sky high.

People are settling for what they can find, and those with the least money often find nothing.

If present trends toward a decline of affordable housing continue, millions more Americans could be out on the streets over the next decade. The gap between the shrinking supply of low-rent units and the numbers of people who need them could approach 19 million by the end of the century.

But the trends aren't inexorable. Actions can change them, and the groundwork for constructive action on housing is being laid.

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During the last eight years, when federal spending for housing shrank by 70 percent, local governments have pushed ahead with what funds they've had. But what's clearly needed now is a broad national partnership, with the federal government taking a leadership role.

That doesn't - and in fact probably can't - mean lots more money from Washington. It does mean a careful reallocation of funds to begin meeting the country's most pressing housing need - the shortage of low-income units. It also means a more affirmative federal role in coordinating and encouraging new ideas in housing.

This isn't something that can blithely be shelved for a while. Within the next couple of years the supply of affordable rental units built with federal help could plummet as the owners' contracts with the government expire and those units convert to market-rate rents or condominiums. Money to build new low-income housing, put in the federal pipeline back in the '70s, is gone.

Ideas for addressing housing needs, however, are plentiful.

The National League of Cities, for instance, has put forward a useful list of suggestions, including replacing the patchwork of present federal housing assistance programs with a block grant approach that rewards creative ideas tailored to local needs.

Certainly the impact of the federal tax code in low-cost housing needs scrutiny. Recent tax reform, in its zeal to close loopholes for the wealthy, has reduced incentives to invest in low-cost housing.

Mayors and other local officials who live daily with the housing crisis are calling on Washington to address these issues. They're counting on having someone in the White House and the US Housing Department who cares enough about housing to put it unmistakably back on the nation's agenda. We trust George Bush is listening.

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