Despite record federal budget deficits, 73% of likely voters believe that it’s “appropriate” and “reasonable” for the federal government to provide tax incentives for homeownership.

Moreover, despite the unprecedented decline in home values during the last three years, three quarters of American voters still believe that owning a home is the best investment they can make.

These are the major findings of a landmark National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) phone survey of 2,000 likely voters set to be released to the mainstream media this week. The survey, conducted May 3-5, is an attempt to counter attempts in Congress to roll back federal housing benefits, including the mortgage interest deduction, low down-payment mortgages, and a government backstop for the secondary mortgage market. 

“Housing is under attack,” Bob Nielsen, the NAHB's chairman, told builders last month at the organization’s Spring Board of Directors Meeting in the nation’s capital, explaining the impetus for the survey. “What we have done is a national poll on the attitudes of homeownership, housing policy, and housing choice.”

The survey was jointly conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican Party-leaning polling firm, and Lake Research Partners, which largely works for Democratic candidates. Speaking at the NAHB board meeting, Neil Newhouse, a partner with Public Opinion Strategies, presented some early impressions of the research findings.

“As much as anything else, homeownership is an anchor of middle-class values across country,” he said. “And you see in the data—that the current housing crisis, the fluctuation in housing, the problem with homeowners being underwater with their mortgage, doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to people.”

Even 65% of voters who were underwater on their mortgages agreed with the statement that “owning a home is the best long-term investment they can make and is worth the risk of ups and downs in the housing market.” Seventy-five percent of total voters in the survey agreed with the statement.  

“What’s powerful here is the intensity with which people are feeling this,” said Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners, speaking at the board meeting. “I think the press and the politicians will be stunned by the intensity of this data.” 

Despite daily news about falling home values, foreclosures, and abandoned subdivisions, four out of five voters said that they would recommend homeownership to a close friend or family member just starting out. Many would-be first-time homeowners harbor that dream—73% of respondents who do not own a home said that their goal is to eventually own one.

The survey will provide the NAHB with strong ammunition for federal housing policy debates, especially the results pertaining to housing tax benefits. Voters were asked whether they thought it was “appropriate” and “reasonable” for the federal government to provide tax incentives to promote homeownership, or whether it was not a good idea.

A full 73% of voters thought these incentives should be provided. The sentiment was highest among Democrats (79%), but the opinion was shared across party lines—71% of Republicans, 68% of Independents, and 68% of Tea Party supporters answered “yes.”

Even more to the point, a large majority of voters (71%) opposed limiting the mortgage interest deduction, and 63% opposed lowering it.More than half of voters said they would be less likely to support a Congressional candidate who wanted to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction. Only a quarter said they would be more likely to support a candidate who ran on this plank.

The NAHB actually invited some proponents of a reduced federal role in the housing market to its board meeting. In a video clip, Bruce Katz of the left-leaning Brookings Institution criticizes current federal housing policies.

“Housing doesn’t drive the economy. The economy drives housing,” says Katz, who has argued in recent speeches that the country needs to create a new economy driven by exports and low-carbon businesses. "I don’t think we’re going to face that competition just by building homes through an over-subsidized tax code.”

The NAHB plans to formally release the results of its "National Voter Survey on Homeownership Attitudes and Housing Politics" to the media in two parts, on June 7th and June 14th.

In media talking points sent to suppliers last week, the NAHB says that Washington policymakers are “threatening to eliminate our nation’s long-standing commitment to housing, which would have major repercussions for generations to come.”

Specifically, the association takes issue with the new standard for a Qualified Residential Mortgage that would require a minimum 20% down payment. “Requiring 20 percent down would keep homeownership out of reach for most first-time home buyers and middle-class households,” the organization states.

It also notes that some members of Congress are actively pushing to abolish Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and “end the federal backstop for housing.”

Boyce Thompson is Editorial Director for Builder magazine.