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The tax write-off for mortgage interest isn't even on the National Association of Realtors' issues radar screen. Indeed, issues such as predatory lending and the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac top the group's legislative agenda.

But if the deduction is put in play as part of any Bush Administration effort to re-write the tax code, as some think it will be, the full force and fury of NAR's nearly 1.1 million members can be expected to be brought to bear.

"We will do all in our power" to save the vaunted deduction, the new NAR president vowed at the politically powerful group's annual convention in Orlando earlier this month.

Al Mansell, a broker from the Salt Lake City area whose run as president of the Utah Senate expires at the end of the year, conceded that the write-off could be preserved under any number of schemes to revolutionize the tax code.

But noting that the mortgage interest deductibility is "one of the pillars" that supports home ownership, Mansell, who heads Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Midvale, Utah, said anyone who tries to mess with it had better watch out.

"Absolutely anything we can do, we will do," he promised.

NAR's chief economist, David Lereah, also mentioned the deduction, saying he is "nervous" about the need to protect it in the face of overly aggressive tax reform that would do away with a tax benefit that has helped subsidize home ownership for more than 70 years.

Other than those remarks, though, the interest deduction is taking a back seat at the Realtors group -- at least for now -- to predatory lending and reforming the government-sponsored housing enterprises.

Why do two decidedly lender-issues top the list of legislative and regulatory concerns of the nation's largest trade association?

That's easy: Because they are bread-and-butter issues for real estate agents and brokers, too.

Take Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for example. If the two powerful secondary mortgage market institutions are forced to focus too much on low- and moderate-income borrowers, the middle-income market could suffer, George Griffin, manager of industry relations and outreach, told members during a federal issues update.

"Be assured," Griffin comforted the group, "NAR is paying attention."

The association also is paying attention to issues regarding abusive lending practices, and for much the same reason, said Jeff Lischer, manager of financial issues.

"We need to make sure they don't throw the baby out with the bath water," Lischer told the meeting.

"There's nothing wrong" with efforts to curtail abusive practices, he said. But if regulators overreact and tighten up so much that reasonable and fair lending is no longer allowed, agents and brokers also could pay a price.

Another key rallying point for the big group is preserving the separation of banking and commerce, or to put it more bluntly, keeping large, federal banks out of real estate.

So far, the National Association of Realtors has successfully blunted any attempt by lenders to move onto their turf, and next year the organization hopes to be put the issue to rest, once and for all.

"The issue is still alive and well. But I hope this will be the last year we talk about it," Policy Representative Edward Miller told the session.

How can realty brokers argue that it is necessary to keep banks out of real estate, even as they continue to make deep inroads into housing finance by forming their own mortgage companies or forming joint ventures with major lenders?

That's an easy one, too, according to Mansell, who said he has no other political aspirations other than to lead NAR for the next 12 months.

"You have to question their goal," he said of banks' efforts to gain entry into the brokerage business. "We think they are trying to control the customer."

And the difference between bankers and realty firms?

"Real estate brokerage is not financial, it's a service," the new NAR president explained. "If brokerage is financial, so is car sales. But the are not. Their only connection to (banking) is that they use credit to make the purchase."

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