I haven’t shared with you much about my work. I am a lawyer who helps put together loans to build and rehabilitate rental housing. Mostly affordable housing. Based on a very rough “back of the envelope calculation,” my work has played a part in providing about 1,500 affordable apartments per year, or about 37,500 affordable apartments over my 25 year career. I should actually count. As you may have noticed, I really like counting things. Some day.
I am proud of the results of my work, but there was much I didn’t know about the more granular positive impact I was having on individual lives. Having just read Evicted–Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, I know more. I recommend it to you. You’ll get a look into the lives of a small group of landlords and tenants in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and through their stories learn much about the impact of rising rents, nuisance property ordinances, severely underfunded housing voucher programs (2 out of 3 low income families receive zero federal housing assistance) and, most importantly, evictions.
There is much that needs fixing in our rental housing market, but two fixes proposed in the epilogue to Evicted would go a long way. First, guarantee access to legal representation for those facing eviction. In many housing courts, ninety percent of landlords show up with lawyers and ninety percent of tenants show up without lawyers (or don’t show up at all). Federal laws require representation be made available for criminal actions, but not civil actions (like housing court actions). Expanding access to lawyers isn’t a new idea. Countries like France, Sweden, Azerbaijan, India and Zambia provide lawyers for all legal actions. Why can’t we? Second, fully fund the housing voucher program so that everyone in need of housing can get housing. Price tag? Roughly $60 billion. Cost of the federal subsidies for homeownership in the form of the mortgage interest deduction and related subsidies? Roughly $170 billion. This $170 billion subsidy ends up mostly benefiting those with six figure incomes. For a third of that price tag we could house everyone. Housing should be a right. What is wrong with us? Read the book already!
Now back to my work. The single most important tool to address the affordable housing crisis was put in place in 1986. That year the tax code was revised to allow the issuance of tax exempt bonds (called private activity bonds) and the use of related tax credits to encourage the construction and rehabilitation of affordable housing owned by private developers. It has worked extremely well (the program now provides half of the country’s annual production of affordable rental housing–about 50,000 units per year), but even with this important stimulus the supply of affordable housing has not kept pace with our rapidly growing need. Rather than expand the program, the current House tax proposal would eliminate the program altogether. This small but devastating change isn’t being generally reported. Now you know. What to do? I called my Representative yesterday and told him I wanted to preserve private activity bonds and tax credits related to affordable housing. Will you do the same?
Take care, okay?