WASHINGTON - Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, in a report issued this week, has backed the Clinton administration's bid to revive the Federal Housing Administration as a government-owned corporation.

William C. Apgar, executive director of the center, said FHA programs are stifled by a rigid, bureaucratic structure.

He advocated that the government agency be reconstituted as an entrepreneurial, flexible, and technically capable corporation, which would work with private companies to reach underserved markets.

The center's report is based on a series of forums around the nation last year sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The report outlined a series of problems that plague the agency.

*FHA programs require time-consuming, redundant documentation, it said.

At a news conference, Jim Irvine, president of the National Association of Home Builders, said the delays in processing insurance cost builders money and can lead to lost business.

He said once a homebuilder sells a home, the goal is to close the sale as soon as possible, so that interest rates do not rise in the meantime.

Processing delays can lead to lost sales, Mr. Irvine suggested.

*The FHA's programs are too rigid, the report said.

With prices and programs set by Congress, the programs can't adjust quickly to changing market conditions.

*The federal housing administrator lacks the technological resources to function in the financial marketplace.

The office "often does not know its own portfolio and can take several months - and even years - to process standard loans and program applications," the report said.

Despite these shortcomings, FHA programs serve a vital role, Mr. Apgar said. Last year, they served more first-time, lower-income, and minority homebuyers than the nongovernment sector.

The report suggests that through demonstration programs and underwriting changes, the agency could show the private market that making loans to minorities, immigrants, and inner-city neighborhoods is profitable.

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