The housing industry's Big Three-the National Association of Realtors, the National Association of Home Builders, and the Mortgage Bankers Association-held a joint press conference this week to show their backing for a dramatically expanded FHA program.

The trade groups said Tuesday that a telephone survey of 800 registered voters found that two-thirds want the Department of Housing and Urban Development program to insure larger home loans-up to a ceiling of $227,150. The survey was done in the first week of February by Insight Group, a market research firm in Tempe, Ariz.

"Raising the loan limit would not only create 300,000 new homeowners over the next five years, it would also add an additional $1 billion to the United States Treasury," said Marc Smith, president of the Mortgage Bankers Association. The money would come from additional insurance premiums.

"We believe there is no single action Congress could take that would have a greater positive impact on increasing the opportunities for homeownership for Americans," Mr. Smith said.

The new limit is controversial because it would mean the FHA could go after the same loans as private mortgage insurers and the two government- sponsored mortgage investors, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie and Freddie may invest in loans up to $227,150; their low-down-payment loans are backed by private insurers.

A 1996 study by the government's General Accounting Office said two- thirds of FHA customers wouldn't have qualified for private mortgage insurance for their low-down-payment loans. But the remaining third are a sizable chunk that private mortgage insurers as well as Fannie and Freddie would like to serve themselves.

On Tuesday, the Mortgage Insurance Companies of America, which represents private mortgage insurers, put out news of a competing consumer survey that found 71% of 2,000 randomly selected respondents saying the federal government's role should be limited to helping low-income and first-time homebuyers.

To qualify for a $227,150 loan, homeowners would need an income of at least $80,000. Most of those surveyed defined that as "upper income," the insurers said. Their survey was conducted by Frederick Schneiders Research, Washington, last Saturday and Sunday.

Most FHA insurance is sold to low-income, minority, or first-time homebuyers, but the program is not restricted to these groups. The new loan limit would be 33% higher than the FHA's current limit in high-cost areas.

In low-cost markets, where the limit is as low as $86,000-typically rural areas-the new limit would allow a much larger increase. Under the President's plan, the FHA would have a single, nationwide loan ceiling.

In an interview, Mr. Smith of the Mortgage Bankers Association said an expanded FHA could result in "a monumental shift" in the nation's homeownership rate, to about 75%. A record two-thirds of Americans were homeowners last year, and the Clinton administration has claimed credit for the increase after many years in which the homeownership rate declined or stagnated.

But Mr. Smith thinks the bar should be higher.

If a homeownership rate of 66% "is good enough," he said, "we don't need" the FHA increase. "If we think there could be a monumental shift, we do need it."

The Mortgage Bankers Association's lobbyist, Michael Farrell, said he thinks the change stands a good chance among lawmakers, because HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo backs it.

Ellen Schweppe, spokeswoman for the insurers' group, disagreed. "We're talking to anyone who will listen, as we have done for years," she said. "We're not seeing a lot of support on Capitol Hill for raising the limit."

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