WASHINGTON -- Nonbank lenders selling mortgages to the government-sponsored secondary market agencies should be required to meet community credit needs, the top thrift regulator said Tuesday:

Jonathan L. Fiechter, acting director of the Office of Thrift Supervision, is the first regulator with a solid proposal for mandating that mortgage bankers, insurance companies, and credit unions comply with rules similar to the Community Reinvestment Act.

While Mr. Fiechter has no power to mandate the change, his proposal is in line with earlier comments by senior Treasury officials. In addition, Comptroller of the Currency Eugene A. Ludwig supports the expansion of community lending laws, though he has not endorsed a specific approach.

Not a White House Move

Mr. Fiechter, speaking to the Michigan League of Savings Institutions at a conference in Pellston, Mich., emphasized that his proposal is not a Clinton administration initiative.

"It is time to engage the power and creativity of all lenders in the national effort to revitalize and develop low and moderate income communities," Mr. Fiechter said.

Because traditional lenders' share of the mortgage market has declined steadily, "It is clear that the community credit needs of this country for affordable housing cannot be met solely by banks and thrifts," he said.

Mr. Fiechter would model the new requirements after those in place at the Federal Home Loan Bank System. Insurance companies and credit unions that join the system to take advantage of its inexpensive advances must compile a community support statement every two years.

'Out of Touch'

The plan could get a warm reception on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress - including House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas and Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy 2d, D-Mass. - have advocated similar measures in the past.

But mortgage bankers opposed the regulator's initiative.

Told of Mr. Fiechter's proposal, Warren Lasko, executive vice president of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, paused and said, "I'm trying to control myself."

The plan is "out of touch with how the mortgage market works and what mortgage companies are already doing to meet community borrowing needs," Mr. Lasko said. "Mortgage companies, unlike thrift institutions, do not draw deposits from communities and therefore don't have a geographic base to reinvest in."

The Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. declined to comment Tuesday on Mr. Fiechter's proposal.

Housing advocates praised Mr. Fiechter's move.

Bob Gnaizda, general counsel of the San Francisco-based Greenlining Coalition, said, "It is an important first step, and I think the logic of this applies to other financial institutions," such as investment banks, pension funds, and insurance companies.

"We will be calling on [Treasury] Secretary [Lloyd] Bentsen and [Under Secretary] Frank Newman to develop such a proposal before the end of the year," Mr. Gnaizda said.

A Stunning Stance

In June 1993, Mr. Newman stunned mortgage bankers and others by saying that nonbanks including mutual fund and finance companies and money market funds should be required to provide services to low-income areas.

Bank and thrift trade groups avoided strongly supporting new requirements for mortgage bankers - their nondepository competitors. But they were quick to rally behind Mr. Fiechter's call that credit unions be subject to CRA requirements.

The credit union trade group disagreed. "Credit unions by their nature can only make loan; to their members and that is tantamount to sending the' funds bank into their communities," said Mark Wolff, a spokesman for the Credit Union National Association.

Mr. Lasko said that if such a measure took effect, "It would overnight dry up tens of billions of dollars in mortgage credit and drive firms out of business."

But the Greenlining Coalition's Mr. Gnaizda said, "This is exactly what bankers said," when Congress was considering fair lending laws. "It is going to enhance their business opportunities, and the best of them are going to become more profitable."

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