There will be a big void in the Senate next year.
When Olympia Snowe retires from her long-held seat, the affordable housing industry will lose one of its most important champions on the Hill.
The Republican from Maine has been the go-to senator on issues involving the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC).
“My proudest housing-related accomplishment is likely supporting the LIHTC when it was first added to the tax code in 1986 and continuing that support to this day,” says Snowe, who was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1978 and then the Senate in 1994.
She heads this year’s group of inductees into the Affordable Housing Hall of Fame.
“As the lead Republican supporter for the LIHTC, Olympia has worked to increase the effectiveness of the program,” says Bob Moss, senior vice president at Boston Capital and an affordable housing industry veteran. “She has been the LIHTC’s defender and lead advocate with her Republican colleagues in the House and Senate.”
Snowe led the charge to preserve the program in the face of the Bush administration’s proposal to end the taxation of corporate dividends, which would have almost certainly ended institutional investment in the LIHTC, and was the lead Republican sponsor in support of the housing provisions within both the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, according to Moss.
Most recently, Snowe, along with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), has introduced legislation, S. 1989, to permanently fix the 9 percent LIHTC and 4 percent acquisition credit rates, a move that would bolster the program’s impact.
Snowe’s long career has made her a popular and familiar figure in her home state. Several years ago when a 122-foot snowwoman was unveiled in Maine, it was named “Olympia.”
Snowe, 65, has loomed just as large in Washington, D.C., where her centralist views and swing votes have put her squarely in the middle of just about every policy debate held during this increasingly partisan era.
Fortunately for the affordable housing industry, she has steadfastly supported the LIHTC, a program that has helped finance more than 2 million units of affordable housing.
“The housing market has been a source of tremendous concern in this country for many years now, and that’s putting it mildly,” she says. “We have all witnessed a decline in home values and in new housing starts—and we’ve wondered when we might start to climb back up out of this deep and persistent trough. And typical of downturns, it is usually the least fortunate among us who are the hardest hit. That’s why I’ve been so proud to continue to be a staunch advocate for the tax provisions designed to assist the low-income community.”
Her own history could have turned out very different. The daughter of a Greek immigrant, she lost both her parents as a young girl and was raised by an aunt and an uncle. Her first job was during high school when she worked in a Christmas ornament factory in the summer.
Snowe earned a degree in political science from the University of Maine in 1969 and was elected to the Maine state House in 1973, filling the seat left vacant by the death of her first husband, Peter Snowe. From there, she soon moved on to Congress.
A politician who has been unbeatable for more than 30 years, Snowe would have almost certainly won again this year had she chosen to seek re-election. However, she surprised everyone when she announced her retirement, citing growing partisanship as a factor in her decision.
“Let me be clear—I’m not leaving the Senate because I’ve ceased believing in its power,” she tells Affordable Housing Finance. “Rather, I’m taking my fight in a different direction, from the outside, to help return the Senate to its roots as a place of refuge from the passions of politics. And if there’s one message I want to convey, it’s that we do not need to accept that polarized partisanship-at-all-costs has to be the new norm. We can reverse the tide.”
What’s next for Snowe
Snowe has lined up a number of post-Senate projects, including writing a book that she says will “recount some of her experiences in Congress and serve as a call to action for the American people.”
She also plans to create political rewards for people who are willing to work across the aisle and has established the Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute to raise the aspirations of Maine girls.
On a more personal level, Snowe, who is married to former Maine Gov. John McKernan Jr., would like to visit the Greek island of Mytilene, where her father was born.
As Snowe prepares to move on, housing advocates must continue making the case for affordable housing. Many federal programs, including the LIHTC, will face intense scrutiny in the year ahead.
Without question, affordable housing needs to be brought to the forefront of the next Congress, says Snowe.
“When tax reform efforts begin in earnest, lawmakers will be looking to lower rates in part through an effort known as ‘broadening the base,’ which means doing away with a variety of targeted tax provisions,” she explains. “The LIHTC could be in the mix of that discussion, so it is incumbent upon the industry to illustrate to Congress not only the impact this credit has had on constituents in the home states of the U.S. representatives and senators, but also how inexpensive this item truly is. When lawmakers realize that the cost of this program is but a drop in the bucket relative to the larger budgetary concerns, they will be encouraged to look elsewhere and to continue to provide the housing opportunities this low-cost, high-impact credit can provide.”
Asked who will fill her shoes on housing issues, she cites Cantwell, her co-sponsor of S. 1989, as a leader. “As with every Congress, there are new senators and new members on the Finance Committee, so it will be necessary to educate them about the merits of this provision,” Snowe says. “There are already many champions ready to fight for this cause, and I am certain new ones will emerge as well.”
Before Snowe goes, there is a chance that she will get to act one final time on the LIHTC program through S. 1989, the bill to establish the fixed rate.
“I am looking forward to making a vote on the extension of this critical provision one of my last acts before I leave Congress,” she says.