A. Gary Shilling, a well-known and respected economist, and Richard LaFrak, a real estate developer and builder, recently proposed federal legislation which would help clear an estimated 2.4 million excess houses lingering on the U.S. market and severely depressing prices.

It would permit foreign residents who can make substantial investments in U.S. houses to become legal residents of the U.S.

Foreign investors would be required to purchase existing houses with cash, with a minimum purchase price, for example, of about $200,000. They would have to prove to the U.S. immigration authorities that they meet all the other requirements for obtaining a permanent resident visa.

The foreign investors, their spouses and minor children would then be granted temporary resident visas. If after a specified time period, two years or five years (pick a number) the investors still own the houses and otherwise still qualify for permanent residence, they and their families would be issued permanent resident visas. The investors would not be permitted to rent the houses to others. As U.S. permanent residents, they would be taxed by the U.S. on their worldwide income.

The program would include all the typical safeguards and security clearances applicable to anyone applying for a U.S. permanent resident visa.

The particulars of the program, such as the number of visas issued each year, the amount of investment required and the length of the holding period for the real estate can all be the subject of negotiation and compromise.

We currently have an immigration system under which approximately a million foreign persons each year obtain U.S. permanent or temporary legal residence. By some estimates, before our current economic slump, about another million persons each year illegally immigrated to the United States. 

This housing investment program would be a positive first step toward reform and would provide a significant stimulus to the U.S housing market, normally one of the most important engines of our economy and the major source of wealth for most families.

If our elected officials, pundits and advocates can momentarily set aside demagoguery and political posturing, and if they and we can keep this program simple, I believe it would do a lot for our country.

John L. Gornall, Jr. is a partner in the Atlanta law firm Arnall Golden Gregory LLP.