Pressured by Public attention to the issue, Congress is considering ­immigration reform in earnest, and any re-­envisioning of immigration policy stands to have a tangible effect on the apartment industry.

Immigration is a notable driver of rental housing demand. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, most immigrants in the U.S. live in rental housing, and nearly one in five renter households is headed by an immigrant.

Immigrants also play an important role in building and operating apartments. In fact, they make up 22 percent of the construction workforce. The increase in demand for apartments has been outstripping the increase in supply, and the industry’s ability to ramp up production could be hindered without a robust labor force.

Piecemeal Policies

Lawmakers, advocacy groups, and the business community agree that our national immigration system fails to fully or efficiently address the country’s security or economic needs. But political dynamics, the complexity of the issues at hand, and continued economic uncertainty have led to years of inaction on Capitol Hill.

In June, the U.S. Senate passed bipartisan legislation to overhaul our national immigration system. In the Republican-led House, the outlook is unclear, adding doubt to whether any consensus may be reached.

In the absence of congressional action, state and local governments have enacted numerous immigration-related measures, creating an unpredictable, burdensome patchwork of compliance obligations for businesses. Last year, state legislatures introduced nearly 1,000 immigration bills and 156 were enacted, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The multifamily industry is particularly concerned about laws that would hold apartment owners and operators responsible for the immigration status of apartment residents and impose employment-related mandates beyond federal requirements. Some state and local immigration laws have specifically targeted rental housing, including those enacted in Hazleton, Pa., and Farmers Branch, Texas. These laws have been challenged in court and put on hold but, if enforced, would hold apartment owners or management firms responsible for the legal status of their residents.

The Case for Comprehensive Reform

Attempts to address various immigration policies at the state or local level have failed to resolve overarching problems. Reform must come from Congress, and it must be comprehensive.

A national system for verifying the immigration status of employees is critical. E-Verify, the federal government’s work-eligibility verification system, is used by more than 400,000 employers and, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is close to 99 percent accurate. E-Verify is currently voluntary for most employers, but bills in Congress would mandate participation.

The industry also has a stake in temporary visa programs to ensure they address current and future workforce needs. However, unlike some proposals that restrict the number of visas for the construction industry, a temporary worker program must allow qualifying employers to participate without arbitrary visa quotas. Such restrictions could exacerbate existing labor shortages and rising development costs, further challenging the apartment industry’s ability to meet our nation’s rental housing needs.