Picture a 100-year-old brick school building in a small agricultural community along the Lewis and Clark trail. You see three stories of tall, rectangular windows on each side of an arched main entry with two tall brick chimneys reaching skyward from the roof. Now imagine this historical monument remodeled into housing for seniors, some of whom went to class here when they were kids; and that redevelopment leading to a resurgence of interest in what was a deteriorating neighborhood.
Next, imagine sprinklers spraying an expanse of green lawn and trees bordering the sidewalk in front of 24 units of three- and four-bedroom townhouse apartments built to blend in with its mid-1950s neighborhood. A large playground with swings and a slide are well placed in back of the buildings where parents returning from a day of farm labor can gather on small private patios to watch their children play as the sun begins to go down.
Finally, think about several modern apartment buildings in downtown Seattle that provide housing for teachers and clerks and dishwashers who want to live near their workplaces, with each building designed in a different style reflecting the surrounding neighborhood, but also built to modern green standards to promote sustainable development and lower the energy costs and environmental impacts of its footprint.
So what do a 100-year-old schoolhouse, townhouse apartments for farmworkers, and modern apartments built to sustainable development standards in a major West Coast city have in common? As you have probably guessed, they were all financed with low-income housing tax credits, one of the most flexible and successful housing programs in the nation.
Each of these projects—and thousands more like them all around the country—are the result of professional design and development, effective use of materials, good construction techniques, and well-managed state programs. Each project was designed and built to meet a different affordable housing need in communities ranging from a small rural town to a West Coast metropolis. Housing for seniors, for farmworkers, and for a vibrant urban community—the tax credit program does it all.
With new leadership in Congress, Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.) in the House and Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) in the Senate, among others, we need to push hard to make the tax credit program an even more effective tool to meet America’s affordable housing needs.
We need to help Congress remove unnecessary policy barriers as soon as possible, and allow tax credits and bonds to be used more effectively together.
We need to urge Congress to provide new authority, such as allowing states to decide when to allocate more credit to difficult-to-develop projects to meet local needs. And, while Congress is considering raising the upper income limit for high-cost areas, perhaps they should be thinking about combining tax credits with rental vouchers at the state level to assure continued benefits to families earning less than 30 percent of median income. When that work is finished, next year we can tackle the budgetary issues and ask lawmakers to raise the per capita limits to meet future demand.
From California to Georgia, the tax credit program is preserving historical buildings, creating sustainable communities, and meeting the affordable housing needs of rural and urban Americans. Let’s not miss this opportunity to make our voices heard and encourage Congress to act quickly and decisively to help tax credits work even better.
Kim Herman is executive director of the Washington State Housing Finance Commission. He is president of the National Council of State Housing Agencies Board of Directors.