A coalition of lenders, builders, and Realtors on Wednesday fired the opening salvo in an effort to make housing policy a front-burner issue in this year's elections.

The group of five major trade groups released a policy statement, "Toward a National Housing Policy," which will be carried to the political conventions, presidential candidates, and party platform committees. "We want to elevate the issue of housing in this election year," said Randall Smith, president of the National Association of Home Builders.

Their joint lobbying effort was necessary, participants said, because American families are struggling to find affordable housing. Government housing subsidies are shrinking, there's talk of privatizing the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., and communities are considering "no growth" proposals to curb development. Even the long-sacrosanct mortgage-interest tax break has been vulnerable as flat-tax plans have been debated.

Their 18-page statement - with a red, white, and blue cover - calls for continued and expanded government support and asks for a reduction in government regulation.

The group wants government to be a "facilitator," not a meddlesome "Big Brother," said David Carson, immediate past chairman of America's Community Bankers.

Nicholas Retsinas, assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development, applauded the group's efforts.

"We need to figure out a way to work together," he said. He promised that the recent Clinton proposal to reduce the FHA mortgage insurance premium for eligible first-time buyers would not be "the final step in reducing the cost of homeownership." He said "more changes" to streamline paperwork are in the works.

The wide-ranging report urged continuing support for existing federal programs such as HUD's FHA and Ginnie Mae programs and the VA program of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

It also urged support for the Federal Home Loan Bank System.

On the legislative front, the group called for continuance of tax benefits for homeowners, including the mortgage interest deduction, deferral and partial exemption of capital gains, and tax-exempt mortgage revenue bonds.

It supported a new initiative to provide tax-advantaged savings accounts for down payments for first-time homebuyers.

The group expressed concern that federal regulations "do not adequately recognize the impact on housing affordability and that, as a result, homebuyers and renters may have to pay more for their housing without necessarily receiving added benefit."

The recommendations:

*Considering the impact of new federal regulations on housing affordability.

*Reviewing existing regulations to eliminate costly, inappropriate, and unnecessary requirements.

*Providing incentives to state and local governments to remove regulatory barriers that add to the cost of housing.

*Protecting property owners from "takings" by the federal government without reasonable compensation.

The five groups involved in drafting the document are the American Bankers Association, America's Community Bankers, the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, the National Association of Home Builders, and the National Association of Realtors.

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