WASHINGTON, D.C.—THERE'S A GOOD CHANCE that the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) would not be around today if it were not for Nancy Johnson.
She saved the program when it was targeted for elimination by some of her colleagues in the House of Representatives, beginning in 1995.
“She stepped up during that period of great risk to the program and became its champion,” says Barbara Thompson, executive director of the National Council of State Housing Agencies. “It was critical that we had someone."
The fight began when Republican Bill Archer, chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, called for ending the housing program in 1997.
Although there had been some isolated controversies with the housing credit in his home state of Texas, the move to end the program still seemed to come out of the blue, stunning the affordable housing industry. Once Archer took the first step toward eliminating LIHTCs, many people considered it a done deal. The program was history.
A Republican from Connecticut, Johnson was a Ways and Means committee member and chair of its Subcommittee on Oversight. She emerged as the program's main defender, calling for hearings on the housing credit. By doing so, Johnson showed that the program was working effectively and came up with changes in response to the few concerns that were raised.
“We got into the issue, and the more we got into it, the more we saw that reform was the right answer, not repeal,” recalls Johnson, who had seen LIHTCs produce strong housing in her state.
The credit was a major tool wielded by the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority to meet the challenge of reusing old industrial buildings, says Johnson, who represented a district heavy with aging cities hard hit by trade from overseas.
She was one of the few Republicans who stood up for the program during this time, says Richard Goldstein, a partner at the Nixon Peabody law firm who has worked extensively with the LIHTC program since its creation in 1986.
It was especially critical because the party had control of the House at the time.
Johnson worked to educate House members about the benefits of the LIHTC, which is widely considered the most successful affordable housing program in the nation.
What saved the credit was that it was producing valuable, well-maintained housing, according to Johnson. “As I explained that to my colleagues and to the chairman, they got it,” she says. “Because people are investing in the credits, they are serious about the standards to which the housing is built. They only get their benefits over time and only if the housing is maintained."
In the end, her efforts thwarted all attempts to eliminate the program then. More than that, she paved the way for future success.
“She seized the opportunity to not only protect the program and ensure that it continued but to strengthen it,” says Thompson. A number of key program changes came about during this time, including the requirement for projects to have an independent market study.
Johnson continued to champion the program over the years and was a key supporter when the tax credit and housing bond caps were increased and indexed for inflation in 2000.
She served in the Connecticut Senate from 1977 to 1983 when she was elected to Congress. Johnson then served in the House for 24 years until losing a tough reelection bid in 2006.
Today, she works as a senior public policy adviser at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz in Washington, D.C. She is married to Dr. Theodore Johnson and has three daughters.
Although Johnson successfully defended the housing credit against one of its biggest threats, she cautions that risks remain.
“It's going to be under fire again as tax reform comes down the road,” she says. “I hope you are thinking about what you are going to do to protect it. There are strategies that should be adopted now so you will be prepared."