With Democrats taking control of the U.S. Congress and the long run-up to the 2008 presidential election about to begin, this is a great time for apartment owners and developers to re-examine their business plans with an eye toward Washington, D.C., and federal housing policy.
In many of the markets experiencing job and population growth, land and construction costs are so high it’s nearly impossible to build apartments affordable to moderate-income households.
With housing costs growing faster than wages, you will find it harder every year to provide housing for retail clerks, teachers, and other less affluent people, who represent a large part of your potential market.
The point is, your opportunities as a developer and owner will become more and more limited unless local and state leaders and federal policymakers take action to address runaway housing costs.
Whether it’s changes in our tax laws, increased funds for rental housing tax credits, or even federal incentives for localities to relax zoning and plan for higher density, policymakers need to act.
With a new Congress in place, I urge you all to take a new look at federal policy and how it could help both your business and the low-wage workers in need of housing.
In the last five years, the federal government has done nothing to make progress in solving our housing needs. Almost all of the legislative efforts during that time have been devoted to fending off ill-considered Bush administration proposals for drastic cuts to existing programs.
The administration proposed one important new initiative in housing policy: the creation of a federal tax credit for development of homes for sale to low- and moderate-income families. But it went nowhere.
Now that the political winds have shifted, it’s time for a more effective and coordinated housing policy. Congress should start by strengthening the federal low-income housing tax credit program.
Now 20 years old, the program shows how the federal government can work with state and local governments and private-sector developers and financiers to provide affordable apartments.
Unfortunately, the program is being relied upon to meet too many housing needs. It is being called upon to provide housing for people with very low incomes, even though it is only a shallow subsidy program. In other cases, it is leading to concentrations of housing that competes with market-rate properties for tenants.
Congress must provide additional subsidies to help tax credit projects get rents down low enough so that they serve people with the most serious housing needs and don’t compete for tenants with market-rate Class B and C properties.
Congress needs to make sure the credit allocation process does not concentrate projects in the same markets. It must find a way to open up suburban communities with job growth to tax credit projects. Finally, Congress must find ways to make the tax-exempt bond program more workable. Right now, billions of dollars in private-activity bond cap that could be used for housing is going unused each year.
The tax credit and bond programs must be part of a multifaceted federal housing policy. Other federal programs should be enhanced to complement the program and to follow the model of flexibility and accountability it offers.
Democratic lawmakers have already started talking about some of these issues. If you want to see progress, let your representatives and senators hear from you.