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Affordable housing will be the most critical real estate issue facing the United States during the decade of the 1990s as businesses abandon major cities where housing costs have escalated and quality of life has deteriorated, a leading real estate expert said.

"The cost of housing will force a growing number of businesses to relocate to less central areas, creating a migration of business similar in magnitude to the shift from downtowns to the suburbs during the 1970s," said Stan Ross, co-managing partner of Kenneth Leventhal & Co., the national CPA firm noted for its real estate expertise."Some employers are leaving areas such as coastal Southern California for interior cities that offer a combination of lower land prices, affordable housing, efficient public services, transportation access and a perceived better living environment for employees," he pointed out.

"In addition, competition for scarce land and more lengthy entitlement processes will add significantly to the cost of housing in the future. While Los Angeles and other major commercial centers will continue to be among the nation's strongest real estate markets, second-tier cities and communities in outlying areas will emerge as prime markets during the 1990s," Ross predicted.

The Kenneth Leventhal & Co. recently issued its Emerging Markets Study, a national analysis that categorized leading real estate markets in terms of long-range strength into three categories: emerging, enduring and transitional.

Emerging markets, those that show signs of greatly enhanced investment protential for the 1990s, include Seattle, Houston, Honolulu, Sacramento (Calif.) and Fort Lauderdale (Fla.). "These are all cities enjoying strong growth that offer major benefits to companies seeking ways to reduce their costs of doing business," Ross said.

"Housing starts will decline in 1990, further adding to the problem," Ross predicted. "It is unlikely that housing will begin to regain ground until later in the decade as businesses relocate to less costly areas, stimulating construction in these communities."

Housing starts for 1989 are estimated to reach as much as 1.45 million, but that figure will drop to about 1.2 million in 1990, Ross forecasted.

The recent Bush administration housing plan includes a proposal that would allow first-time home buyers to withdraw without penalty up to $10,000 from IRA and 401(K) retirement funds for a downpayment on a house. Ross said the total assets in IRA accounts in the United States reached $393 billion at the end of 1988.

He estimated this plan over a long-term period could allow millions of Americans to buy houses if this proposal is passed in the next Congress.

Ross urged Congress to pass this type of program in order "to preserve the American dream of home ownership for millions of potential home buyers."

The Bush proposal also called for elimination of the capital gains tax in 50 inner-city "enterprise zones" around the country to encourage business investment in the poorest neighborhoods. And another proposal would have made permanent a program granting tax credits to encourage rehabilitation of rental housing.

In addition, the legislation establishing enterprise zones would provide support for reviving urban districts that have deteriorated economically and physically, further offering developers excellent opportunities to build projects with important tax benefits and other credits, Ross added.