By Evan Carmen
Our country’s public housing program was first created in 1937 during the Great Depression with a goal of providing affordable housing to low-income individuals and families. The federal government continued to pass major legislation through the 1970s that increased the number of buildings created expressly for affordable housing. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s the federal government increased the number of buildings available for low-income seniors primarily through the Section 236 and Section 202 programs. Because the Section 202 program was created specifically for seniors, amenities and services came with the building that addressed the specific needs of the elderly. Unfortunately, since the 1980s affordable housing has exhibited a steady decline. Consequently, because of the political environment, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) which was originally created with bipartisan support under the Tax Reform Act of 1986, has emerged as the best way to create and preserve affordable housing.
The LIHTC is administered by the Internal Review Service (IRS), which awards federal tax credits to the private sector to encourage investments in affordable housing. Ideally the federal government would reinstitute policies like the Section 202 capital advance program for the creation of affordable housing; however the LIHTC has been able to pick up some of the slack by creating additional low-income buildings. To further the point, the LIHTC helps finance about 90 percent of all affordable housing in the United States, and has helped fund the creation of about 3 million apartments since its inception.
The B’nai B’rith Housing Network is beginning to greatly benefit from the LIHTC by using this government program to benefit low-income senior residents. In St. Louis, Covenant Place Apartments used the LIHTC as a financing mechanism behind the rehabilitation of the property. Initial projections had the project costing about $84 million, with the LIHTC funding about $29 million or 35 percent of the initial cost estimate. When the project is completed it will offer 355 affordable apartments and a host of amenities. Joan Denison, executive director of Covenant Place said, “The LIHTC program made it possible for Covenant Place to embark on the redevelopment of its three aging and functionally obsolete buildings. Without the LIHTC funds, the cost of development would have been out of reach. Today, we have the new Covenant Place I, Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Building, providing 101 energy efficient, accessible one bedroom apartments, in which the residents say they feel healthier and happier. With a rapidly growing senior population that continues to live longer, there is a critical need for affordable, supportive and accessible housing. The LIHTC program is essential to the future of affordable housing.”
In Massachusetts, The Coolidge at Sudbury Apartments used the LIHTC to finance the construction of 64 units. Like Covenant Place in St. Louis, Sudbury Apartments used the LIHTC as a major financial driver to fund the cost of the project. For example, the total development cost of the project was about $16 million and the LIHTC contributed about $10 million of the financing.
Given the importance of the LIHTC in the affordable housing community, what is the outlook for the continued success of the program? Recently, the Trump administration released its initial tax reform policy. While the initial proposal does not address the LIHTC, the mere threat of tax reform has caused these tax credits to lose their value because they are tied to the corporate tax rate. Under President Trump’s proposal, the corporate tax rate would be reduced from 35 percent to 15 percent, causing potential LIHTC investors to have less tax liability. A decrease in investor’s tax liability lessens their desire to purchase the LIHTC. According to Todd Crow of The Affordable Housing Tax Credit Coalition (TAHTCC), the value of the tax credit has dropped from $1.00 per credit to as low as $0.85 per credit. While the fate of Trump’s tax reform proposal remains unclear, anxiety about the future of tax policy has caused the private sector to re-evaluate future construction projects.
Fortunately, all is not lost for the LIHTC! The good news is that The Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act has been introduced in both houses of Congress to strengthen the LIHTC, and has received bi-partisan support. While both versions of legislation are similar, the biggest difference between the two bills is that only the Senate’s version expands the housing credit. The Senate’s legislation expands the housing credit by 50 percent, for the purpose of creating or preserving about 1.3 million affordable homes. However, both bills have provisions to make recapitalization of properties easier and establish a 4 percent minimum Housing Credit rate for finance acquisitions and Housing Bond-financed developments. If this legislation becomes law, it would inject a much needed jolt in the arm of the affordable housing community, which needed assistance even before the prospects of Trump’s tax reform proposals. The United States has a housing crises and the LIHTC is one tool to improve the issue.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said, “The affordable housing crisis is exploding all across the country. We are facing pressures from all sides: demand for rental housing has increased by 21 percent, but we are building units at the lower rate since the 1970s. If we do not act to increase the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit—our best way to build affordable homes—by 2025 over 15 million Americans could be spending half their income on rent. This is unacceptable.”
Based on the current environment, the United States federal government is still best suited to offer solutions to our country’s housing crises. According to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, without the LIHTC, “construction costs would have to be reduced by 72 percent of the current construction cost average” to see the development of new housing. Without the LIHTC, how is the private sector supposed to absorb the additional construction costs, and still provide affordable low-income housing?
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Todd Young (R-Ind.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Cantwell deserve credit for being original cosponsors of the Senate’s version of the legislation, and more members of Congress should come out in support of a policy that looks to increase affordable housing. Members of Congress need to act now, because according to The Affordable Housing Tax Credit Coalition 5.1 million senior households now use more than half their income on housing, and in 2030 the number of seniors is predicted to double.
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