"At times, it has looked as if things were improving, like last year’s jump in sales because of a temporary homebuyer’s tax credit or the recent rise in new-home sales from near-record lows. But, over all, sales and construction have been flat for two years, while prices, driven down by foreclosures, are plumbing new depths."
Actually no; it never looked like "things were improving" to people who follow the housing market. It looked like the tax credits were temporarily delaying the deflation of the housing bubble. This delay allowed banks and investors to have hundreds of billions of dollars in mortgages, which would be underwater today, taken off their books and replaced by Fannie (FNMA.OB) and Freddie (FMCC.OB) guaranteed loans, through sales or refinancing.
Prices are still close to 10 percent above their trend level, based on either the 100-year long-term trend in house prices or the current price to rent ratio. Neither the NYT, nor anyone else, has provided an explanation as to why we should expect prices to settle above trend.
It is not clear why the NYT would view any delay in the bubble's deflation as a positive development. People who buy houses at prices that are still inflated by the bubble can anticipate losing money on their house. Does the NYT have some reason for thinking it is good policy to get new homeowners into homes where they can anticipate capital losses.
More generally, high house prices amount to a transfer of societal wealth from people who don't own homes to those who do. Since the latter group is much wealthier on average than the former group, why should it be public policy to promote this sort of upward redistribution of wealth?
The NYT's failure to seriously think about the housing market demonstrates an extraordinary laziness that prevents it from clearly understanding the policy implications. The economy will have adjust to a situation where prices return to trend levels. This will mean lower consumption. (Isn't this what everyone wants -- higher savings?) The lost consumption must be replaced in the short-term by government spending, in the longer term by more net exports. The latter will require a lower dollar. This is all Econ 101.
As far as the housing market, a little clearer thought would get policy to distinguish between markets where the bubble is still deflating (e.g. Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston) and markets where prices are likely overshooting on the low side (e.g. Los Vegas and Phoenix). It might make sense to have policies to boost prices in the latter set of cities. It makes no sense to have policies to boost prices in the former.
Finally, the simplest and cheapest way to help homeowners facing the loss of their home is to give them the right to stay in their house as renters paying the market rent. This requires no taxpayer dollars and no new bureaucracy and would immediately help all the homeowners affected. For these reasons, it is a non-starter in Washington.