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Senate Housing Bill Offers Some Relief

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Topic A on the Senate floor today is a housing bill, a compromise between Republicans and Democrats. The bill is aimed at easing the housing crisis, but even its proponents say it doesn't go far enough. It includes billions of dollars in grants and loans for struggling homeowners. It also offers tax breaks to home builders and other businesses. And you can expect a lot more debate before a final version of the bill emerges.

Well, NPR congressional correspondent Brian Naylor is here to help us sort out who this bill might help and who it might hurt.

Hello, Brian.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Hi, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, this bill was rushed to the floor to help Main Street - the idea was that the government was helping Wall Street. So, what about the little guy? Does the bill actually help Main Street?

NAYLOR: Well, there is a little bit of help for the little guy. And also, for maybe, a little bigger guy - the middle-income homeowners.

First off, anyone who owns a home and doesn't itemize their income taxes will now be able to take a standard property tax deduction of a thousand dollars for joint filers. The bill also allows state and local housing agencies to issue bonds to help homeowners refinance subprime loans. There's money in here for mortgage counseling. And one other bit of help: The bill raises the price of a home that would qualify for an FHA-backed mortgage, which tend to have fixed rates and are more stable than some of these other exotic loans, up to $550,000. So that should help more homeowners or would-be homeowners get the FHA-backed mortgages.

NORRIS: There's $7,000 in tax credits for people who purchase foreclosed homes. In some cases, there are people who might be preying on other people's misery. Are they opportunists?

NAYLOR: Well, it might seem that way, but in reality, when your block has a foreclosed home on it - or several - those homes sit vacant, they become, you know, a target for vandals, weeds are growing in the yard. And what happens is the property values of the surrounding homes go down. So both parties agree that this ripple effect needs addressing. So there's a tax credit for the folks who buy these properties, and they have to occupy them. It can't just be speculators. And there's also money to enable communities to buy them and fix them up.

NORRIS: Now, there are big tax breaks for home builders, as we said, even for other businesses. Could you tick through some of those for us?

NAYLOR: Well, in fact, the home builders are about the biggest beneficiaries of this bill. There are new credits for home builders and other businesses that have lost money in the past couple of years because of the housing slump. And so, they can now take those losses and apply them against profits they made, you know, up to four years ago. So if you're a small or a big home builder in the red this year, you can take those losses and go back as far as 2005, when times were flush, and get a rebate for the taxes that you paid that year. That's going to cost taxpayers up to $6 billion, it's estimated.

The home builders are a very powerful lobby. They make lots of campaign contributions, and they've been sitting on their wallets saying, you know, we're not going to help you politicians unless you help us. And lo and behold, the Senate came through, $6 billion worth of help.

NORRIS: Now, not everyone is happy with this bill. There are critics. One of them said the bill amounts to dancing around a fire when Congress is supposed to be putting it out. Some say this is tantamount to a bailout. What's left out of the bill? At one point, we were hearing about $300 billion to underwrite low-cost mortgages. What happened to that, for instance?

NAYLOR: Well, that's one of the things that's left out of this bill. Democrats hope to bring that up in a separate measure, and they all concede that this bill that we're talking about now is just a first step. This is kind of a low-hanging fruit, you know; these are things that everyone can agree on. But, you know, this is going to go through the process. It's going to go over to the House, where they have their own priorities and are likely to try to tweak some of these things and maybe add in that money for low-cost mortgages. So this story is far from over.

NORRIS: Brian, thanks so much.

NAYLOR: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Brian Naylor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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