ORLANDO, Fla. -- The National Association of Realtors thinks it has a few good men and women who can help make a difference in battling housing-affordability problems across the nation.
A goal of the trade group's Committee on Housing Needs, formed several years ago to attack housing problems ranging from the needs of the homeless to the difficulties of first-time homebuyers in affording a house, is set to have 50 percent of all its local boards involved in community housing programs by 1995.
Those are big numbers. The association has 800,000 members and 1,800 local boards.
The housing problem "is a very difficult issue, but we believe we can help make a difference," said John A. Tuccillo, the association's chief economist and senior vice president of real estate finance.
"If we get 50 percent of our boards involved in housing initiatives, you'll see a difference," Mr. Tuccillo said.
Discussing the problem during the association's national convention in New Orleans last month, Mr. Tuccillo said the group's most recent housing study shows that affordability is becoming a bigger problem, especially for low-income and young-family households.
The study shows the "housing ladder" -- the movement of households from renter status to first-time buyer and then to better homes -- is getting more difficult to climb, he said.
Some renters are carrying a tremendous burden just paying rent, not to mention trying to buy homes, the study shows.
The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, for instance, has found that some families pay 50 percent or more of their income in rent, primarily in large urban areas.
Accumulating enough cash for a down payment is one of biggest difficulties for those hoping to buy their first home. Most lenders require at least a 10 percent down payment. Loans for people who want to put down less than 10 percent are still available but are increasingly difficult to get.
The nation runs the risk of becoming a nation of "housing haves and have-nots," according to the study.
Realtors view local involvement as the key to attacking the myriad housing problems because, they say, government alone can't solve the problem. Private and public cooperation is a must, Mr. Tuccillo said.
"It's not going to happen from the top down," said Bob Elrod of Windermere, Fla., a member of the Housing Needs Committee and a former president of the Greater Orlando Association of Realtors and the Florida Association of Realtors.
"The problem isn't going to be solved with money from Washington. It's going to take an awful lot of work and cooperation at the local level. That's why we're taking this approach," a grass-roots involvement by local Realtor boards.
Mr. Elrod said affordable housing and shelter problems will be one of his priorities in 1994, when he will become president of the national trade association.
Despite more local efforts, Ira Gribbon, an Encino, Calif., Realtor and past president of the national Realtors association, said public apathy remains as part of the problem.
If nothing is done about housing-affordability problems and the shelter needs of the homeless, people who are "housing disadvantaged," an industry term for an inability to find affordable homes, will swell.
"We have to convince a lot of the public that there's a problem out there," Mr. Gribbon said. "Out of sight, out of mind. If the homeless went to suburbia and sat on our lawns, we'd solve the problem damn quick."
Realtors have a business interest in the problem, he conceded.
If those at the bottom aren't helped, fewer people will be coming onto the housing ladder, and that eventually will hurt the real estate business, he said.