The Coming Budget Will be a Disaster for Housing, but Housers Are Part of the Problem

 "The Marriage of Real Estate and Money" (Tom Otterness, 1996)

"The Marriage of Real Estate and Money" (Tom Otterness, 1996)

Republican-controlled Congress passed a major hurdle in their plan to radically reshape the nation’s tax code last week by narrowly passing a budget for 2018 in a close 216-212 vote.  The narrow spread included 20 Republican defections, which is a clear signal of the considerable challenges that lay ahead.  Regardless, this process will be a disaster for housing policy – affordable housing or otherwise.  The fact that this process is proceeding in rapid, secretive, and reckless fashion barely registers anymore shows how far our legislative process has come apart. It also shows how little the housing community can do to prevent this damage and how little it understands the changing landscape of national politics.

I have written extensively about three major threads since the beginning of the Trump Era (although they originate well before) that continue to dominate housing policy discussions. This budget (which is not law yet and is still largely unknown as policy) reflects these trends. The response the housing community has to each also shows how much it needs to change its approach and fight for a simple, clear cause: housing as a right.

1. Down with Public Housing

First, President Trump, despite his incoherencies, has been steadfast in his utter indifference to affordable housing, especially public housing. Given other mounting evidence, it seems more likely that he holds the people (or those people, more aptly) that rely on it in contempt. 

Appointing Secretary Carson has worked out exactly as the President had hoped and as housing advocates had feared.  HUD will face devastating cuts whether the Secretary understands them or not. The 13% across-the-board cuts long-promised by the administration are starting to take form and no one suffers more than the poor Americans who rely on housing vouchers, community block grants, and of course, public housing. 

Public housing authorities across the country will be further starved of funding and will likely turn increasingly to measures such as the Obama-era program Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) that provides upfront funding by turning public housing into privately-leased Section 8 units.  Seen as a necessity, or even as a progressive fail-safe by many housers, this program will only weaken cash-strapped public housing authorities and undermine their broader mission. Housers who support RAD will live to regret those decisions instead of rallying around a robust defense of public housing on its merits.

Saying Secretary Carson is unqualified or simply dumb doesn't change the narrative on public housing.  Saying the President doesn't support or respect poor Americans' struggles won't change the support most Americans have for public housing.  Making the case that public housing - and greater federal involvement in affordable rental housing - is good for the country and good for everyone - city or suburb - is the only way to effectively fight the Trump administration.  Right now, the playbook is wracking up losses. It's time to change it.

2. Up With LIHTC

Second, Congress continues to gaslight the housing community about the effectiveness of the main national affordable housing policy – the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC).  Enacted after the last major tax overall in 1986, it has created over 3 million housing units representing 90% of all affordable units built during the period.

That’s seen as a success by many well-meaning actors in housing despite the fact that it is has demonstrably failed to provide the volume of units our country needs.  99% of US counties are in an affordable housing crisis. When the only policy explicitly designed to address affordable housing is failing that broadly, it is irresponsible to defend the status quo. But that is largely what is happening at the moment.

The legitimate fear from this proposed tax cut plan - I won't pretend it's some nebulous "tax reform" - is that lower corporate rates will dramatically weaken the incentive to partake in the LIHTC program. What will be left unsaid is that relying on the private sector to build affordable housing through tax incentives is inherently and obviously flawed.

Instead of arguing for a larger policy shift, many housers will try to defend LIHTC and, by extension, the status quo of federal housing priorities. When, inevitably, both parties do offer some type of carve out for LIHTC to remain attractive, this will be hailed as a victory. We should know better by now. We should be arguing for more policies like community land trusts that offer the same type of decentralized, local control that many communities want, while rejecting the speculative component that largely dictates development today.

3. Upside Down on Homeownership

Third, we have learned nothing from the 2008 mortgage crisis.  Not only have we failed to address the dangers of increased financialization of the housing market, or the more fundamental challenges of slow wage-growth, rising debt, and geographic inequality that is crushing the housing market, but we have never rectified that promoting homeownership for 80 years has been a disaster for our country.

Homeownership has undoubtedly pushed millions of Americans into the middle class but it has also prevented millions more from doing so.  Wealth inequality across racial lines has increased in recent decades.  Racial segregation has increased in recent decades.  The environmental and social costs of single-family suburban sprawl will only get worse as a generation of baby boomers age and realize no one is coming to buy their homes at what they think they are worth.  Nobel-prize winning economist Robert Schiller has long debunked that houses automatically appreciate in the US. In fact, on average, they haven't at all since the 1940s. That's only going to get worse in many parts of the country.

The only minutely (unintentionally) progressive element of the tax cut plan currently under consideration is reducing the mortgage interest deduction, which disproportionately benefits wealthier Americans. This is being met with fierce resistance by the housing industry. It's not hard to see why homeowners and housing developers wouldn't want to support massive tax cuts for corporations and the top percent of earners.  Reducing the MID to pay for tax cuts isn't what many housing reformers had in mind, but it shows how hard it will be to try such a thing under any circumstances.

This is because treating housing as a tool of wealth creation as opposed to one for shelter provision is the definitive policy choice of 20th century America.  We have built a nation on this principle (along with car ownership, which of course is directly tied to housing.)  There are many ills facing our society today and our housing policy explains a lot of them.

To truly change this, we must first accept a blatantly obvious reality: treating housing like an asset has failed.  We have commodified it, securitized it, and speculated on it like it’s something less important than a basic human right.  Many elements of our country have profited handsomely from this.  Indeed, go to any real estate conference now and there will be a technocratic consensus that “the market is doing well” while ignoring the larger truth: our society is not doing well.

Housers must recognize the opportunity that we have to dramatically change the discussion on housing by rejecting the 20th century concept of housing.  Millions of Americans are hurting and are angry.  Ideas that might have once been considered 'radical' by some people - even many housing advocates - are now entering the conversation and public policy. Most Americans recognize that the old way we constructed our politics isn't working. 

We must extend that realization to the built environment and offer a positive, actionable vision for a better future.  Housers have to stop accepting a failed premise and fight to establish a new one. It starts with saying simply, proudly, and forcefully that housing is a right.