House, Senate divided on how to help housing

/ Source: The Associated Press

Democrats are split over how to respond to the housing crisis, with House leaders focusing on helping homeowners facing foreclosure while the Senate moves to take care of businesses impacted by the subprime crisis.

The Senate could pass its bipartisan business-friendly measure, which showers some $25 billion in tax breaks on home builders and banks, as early as Wednesday. That's also when a key House panel is to consider a rival Democratic plan that instead steers tax breaks toward first-time home-buyers and investors in low-income rental housing.

The emerging rift clouds the prospects for a broader housing rescue plan that would have the government step in and insure $300 billion in restructured loans for homeowners staring at foreclosure. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the Banking Committee chairman, begins hearings on that measure Wednesday.

The House and Senate will ultimately have to reconcile competing versions of the plan.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has made little secret of her distaste for the Senate's approach. "Hopefully, the balance will swing to being more in favor of the families who are in danger of losing their homes," she told reporters last week.

The House plan would give first-time homebuyers a 10 percent credit — up to $7,500 — on the purchase of a new home. It is targeted toward lower earners, with those making $70,000 (or $110,000 for a couple) receiving smaller credits.

"We need to provide relief to the buyers and families themselves, not just the banks and builders," Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., the Ways and Means Committee chairman, said Tuesday. "The House bill puts families first — offering a refundable tax credit to first-time homebuyers, essentially a zero-interest loan to help defray the cost of purchasing a house."

Rangel's panel is scheduled to consider the measure Wednesday, and House leaders plan to add it to the broader housing overhaul expected to come to a vote in May.

The Senate measure — slated for a test-vote Tuesday afternoon — instead proposes awarding a $7,000 tax credit to people who buy foreclosed homes or homes on which foreclosure has been filed. It is aimed at helping get foreclosed homes off the market, thereby stabilizing home prices and keeping blighted houses from dragging down neighborhoods. However, some economists argue it could encourage foreclosures and distort the housing market, lowering the value of homes occupied by people who are up to date with their mortgages.

Both plans allow people who don't itemize their deductions to claim them on their property taxes, chiefly benefiting homeowners who have paid off their homes and can't claim a deduction on mortgage interest. Both also would enhance the ability of state and local housing finance agencies to use tax-exempt bonds to refinance distressed subprime mortgages.

The Senate measure also provides $100 million in pre-foreclosure counseling, $4 billion in grants for communities with the highest foreclosure rates to buy and rehabilitate foreclosed properties, and stronger loan disclosure requirements.

Senate Democrats defend their measure as a well-rounded response to the housing crisis that's at the crux of recent economic woes. But senior House Democrats have quietly derided the plan as ineffectual and skewed toward businesses, while liberal groups have been vocal in their opposition.

"It turned out that the bulk of the bill was taken up by a homebuilder bailout," said Jacob Hay, a spokesman for the Laborers International Union of North America, the construction workers union.

Even some Republicans said the plan was titled unfairly toward the wealthy.

The bill "is very, very heavily tilted to Wall Street and not to Main Street. ... It's the little guy who's not being taken care of," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. "This is not half a loaf, this is a crumb."

The main difference between the House and Senate bills is a provision in the latter that would permit homebuilders and other businesses absorbing heavy losses now to reclaim taxes paid when times were good. It would cost $25 billion through 2010.

The roughly $11 billion House measure would be paid for in part through a Bush administration-proposed plan to help the IRS check whether investors are accurately reporting their taxable gains. Brokers would be required to report the purchase price as well as the sale price of publicly traded stocks and mutual funds.