Cantwell Calls for Action on Affordable Housing Crisis

House GOP Proposal would eliminate nearly 1 million affordable housing units from being built

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) took to the Senate floor to call for action on addressing the affordable housing crisis in America. Cantwell specifically highlighted her bill with Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) that would expand the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC).

“We need a very big systematic investment in affordable housing all across the United States. And expanding the Low Income Housing Tax Credit is one way to do that,” said Cantwell. “The most damning part of the housing crisis is that we know how to solve it. We just need the courage to act.”

Currently, the House GOP tax bill would eliminate private-activity bonds and repeal the 4 percent LIHTC for these tax-exempt bonds – key drivers of affordable housing production. Private-activity bonds are used in conjunction with the 4% Low Income Housing Tax Credit to finance new affordable housing units. It is estimated without the private-activity bonds and the 4 percent LIHTC, between 788,000 to 881,000 fewer affordable housing units would be built over the next 10 years. Overall, it is estimated that the House GOP tax bill would reduce the amount of affordable housing built by up to 983,000 over ten years.

A transcript of Cantwell’s full remarks is below.

Background on the Low Income Housing Tax Credit

Under the Cantwell proposal, which is cosponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Ranking Member Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), and 16 others, the expanded LIHTC would help create or preserve approximately 1,300,000 affordable homes over a 10-year period – an increase of 400,000 more units than is possible under the current program.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, annual LIHTC development supports approximately 95,700 jobs and $9.1 billion in wages and business income. Enacting the Cantwell-Hatch proposal would create an additional 452,000 jobs over the next 10 years supporting the construction of additional units.

Since 2016, Cantwell – along with a coalition of more than 1,300 national, state, and local affordable housing advocates known as the A.C.T.I.O.N. Campaign – built support for expanding the LIHTC in Washington state and the country. Cantwell has met with stakeholders and visited affordable housing developments at events in Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, Vancouver, Walla Walla, Longview, Kent, Bremerton, Bellingham, Portland, New York City and Salt Lake City.

Senator Maria Cantwell

Floor Remarks in Defense of the LIHTC in Tax Reform

November 8, 2017

Thank you, Mr. President. I rise today to talk about the affordable housing crisis that is gripping our nation. When I say "crisis" I mean I know that people here on the precipice of talking about what we're going to do in response to hurricanes Harvey and Maria and Irma, and I would like to say that the housing crisis that will exist in the aftermath of those hurricanes is very real but there are also even greater implications from the housing crisis that exists today without those hurricanes and that it's only going to continue to grow and get worse until we deal with it.

This past February, more than 2,000 families packed into the New Holly gathering hall in South Seattle. Each family was hoping to hear its name called. It wasn’t a contest, it wasn’t a game, it wasn’t the lottery. It was a lottery to see if families could get affordable homes. The Mercy Othello Plaza would soon open 108 affordable housing units. That is hardly a match for the 2,000 families hoping to get into the units. But based on the numbers alone, their chance for getting an affordable home was lower than an applicant’s chance of getting into Harvard. 95% of the families attending that night left disappointed, continuing to search for affordable housing. This is just one story of how affordable housing crisis is gripping our nation. I am sure that every one of my colleagues here in the Senate could talk about a story they've heard in their state because this crisis impacts every state, and it impacts every community, both urban and rural alike.

As I've traveled across the state of Washington, I've seen some of the most hard-hit areas for affordable housing. I've seen veterans returning home not able to find affordable housing. I've seen an aging population living longer and also not having the resources looking for affordable housing. I've seen young workers wanting to be close to where their employment is and yet having to drive so far away because that's the only place they could find affordable housing. And we have seen homelessness in numbers that reckon back to previous days when we had a true recession.

The most damning part of the housing crisis is that we know how to solve it. We just need the courage to act. For decades, the housing growth was the most stimulative part of our economy. Throughout the 1980s, housing was 18% of GDP. Today, that number has dropped to just 15%, and when people discuss tax reform and GDP growth, housing is still one of the ways that economists will tell us that we can grow GDP. In the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s, if somebody said, ‘how do we stimulate our economy,’ usually a cheer would go up for housing. But since the economic downturn, we haven't heard that cheer. In fact, it's almost as if we have forgotten how stimulative housing is to our economy. The total number of houses built between 2007 and 2016 total just 8.9 million units, far below the 15 million-plus average for every ten-year period through the 1970s and 1990s.

So we are off the pace of what it takes to provide affordable housing, and as a result, the vacancy rates and inventories for home sales have also fallen. The national vacancy rate, which is the number of homes for sale, has receded to the 2000 level, erasing all the run-up that we saw in the housing boom and, moreover, homeownership in the United States is now at its lowest rate since the 1960s. 20 million American families, including 11 million renters, are now spending more than half of their income on housing. So that means less money for other essentials like food and health care and gas, and the National Affordable Housing Coalition tells us that 7.4 million more available affordable homes are needed because we have seen an increase in 60% since the year 2000 in the need of affordable housing. So the United States has become a rent-burdened economy, and if we don't address this crisis, the problem is only going to get worse. In fact, one study found that if we don't address this crisis, we are going to see another 25% increase in the number of Americans spending more than half of their income in rent.

Now, I know my colleagues on the other side of the aisle and in the House of Representatives are talking about what they want to do in tax reform. I would say that they should look at this data as it relates to where we are with homeownership and housing and say things that would eliminate the private active bonds, one of the key drivers of affordable housing production, would be a big mistake if they got rid of that. Obviously, there are units of affordable housing that are being planned and built right now. In fact, one estimate is that over one millions units wouldn't be completed just because of the House provision. Obviously limiting the mortgage interest deduction for new homeowners could potentially increase taxes on homeowners and limiting the number of people who could afford a home. And almost a third of taxpayers nationally claimed the deductions that they could see as it relates to property tax deductions also could be an impact.

I hope our House colleagues and our Senate colleagues will see in light of the housing crisis what a terrible idea those things are. But how did we get to this crisis as it exists now? Well as I said, part of the issue was demand. The 2007 housing crash pushed millions of families into the rental market and reduced wages on working families. The demand for rental housing skyrocketed. Over 7 million Americans lost their homes to foreclose and they demanded more affordable places to live. So today, as I said, the homeownership rate is the lowest in our nation since the 1960s and the last ten years has seen the largest gain of renters on record. So the demand for rental housing shows no sign of slowing down and millennials, like many of the young people that we see who want to be close to jobs in our burgeoning economy, are forced to rent instead of own and they are in big numbers seeing that challenged by the fact that there is not enough supply.

So at the same time that demand was going up from returning veterans, from aging seniors, from workplace needs, from many more people being and needing affordable housing, having been pushed out of the homeownership market, at the same time demand was going up, supply failed to keep pace. Affordable housing stock is being and was being converted to market-based rate units. That means they got taken out of the affordability framework and a new report showed that the number of apartments deemed affordable for low-income families dropped 60% over the last six years. So as all this pressure and demand to people falling out of the homeownership and back into the market and pushing things down, we saw so many units that were affordable units, get transferred over to market-based rates and thereby losing supply.

The new production of affordable housing has not filled the gap and production of affordable housing is at its lowest-ten year production rate since 1974. So it, too, has played a role. The combination of increased demand and lack of production has caused the explosion in our affordable housing crisis. And the number of Americans facing extreme unaffordability -- that means they're paying more than that 50% -- has gone from 7 million Americans to 11.2 million Americans. As I said earlier, it's a 60% increase in the number of people in the United States who are in this area of extreme unaffordable rates for housing.

While I know we're going to discuss natural disasters and helping communities recover, everywhere from the families that have been impacted in Florida and Texas and various places. We also have to just look at the issue of affordable housing every place from Seattle and Portland and San Francisco all the way across the country to Philadelphia, and Miami, and many other places. In the aftermath of Katrina, Congress passed an expansion of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, and it built 28,000 affordable unilateral units on the Gulf. So I know my colleagues will want to do something similar for Texas and the Gulf states to make sure that we're doing something. But we need to understand that there at the time of Katrina was a need for more than 275,000 homes destroyed by that hurricane. So building 28,000 units was barely a blip. The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit helped rebuild some units, but it came nowhere close to solving the housing crisis in New Orleans. Market rates in New Orleans are 35% higher after the storm and 37% of households are paying more than half of their income in housing.

So now 12 years later another disaster has hit, and we're going to try to address this crisis, but the housing burden for extremely low-income families in Texas and the major metro areas of Texas is among some of the worst in the nation. That is before the crisis, before the actual impact of hurricanes, Texas was already at a crisis point. Texas has only 29 affordable units for every 100 low-income households looking for those options. Houston is the third worst in the country for housing availability for extremely low-income people. And now families from Florida to Puerto Rico are going to also be finding a very difficult situation. Expanding the tax credit could help, but we have to do more than just expand the tax credit for those disaster states. We need a very big systematic investment in affordable housing all across the United States. And expanding the low-income tax credit is one way to do that.

The good news is that we have good bipartisan support for the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit enacted in 1986. It helped build three million rental units across this country over the last 30 years. And if you want to make a dent in this crisis, both in response to the hurricanes and the crisis that already existed, we need to begin filling that gap by increasing the credit. That is why I joined Senator Hatch in introducing the Affordable Housing Tax Credit Improvement Act, something that would help us build hundreds of thousands of new units in the next 10 years. I'm glad that Senators Wyden and Portman, Sullivan, Merkley, Scott, Bennet, Collins, Kaine, Heller, Leahy, Shaheen, Murray, Schumer, Murkowski, Young, Graham, Schatz, Booker, and Hassan, Isakson and Sanders are all supporters. We have good bipartisan support from people who understand that this crisis is real and that it is only going to grow.

But we also know that the additional tax credit would create almost 450,000 new jobs over the next ten years. That is because housing is stimulative to the economy. Construction alone supports over two million jobs, and it helps by making sure that that economic impact to GDP is realized now through this investment. It also helps us save money as an economy and a country by putting a roof over people's heads. One of the reasons I was so excited to work with Senator Hatch on this is because in his home state, Utah had made such great progress in dealing with their homeless veteran population. The community just decided by putting a roof over someone's head, they actually helped lower overall costs. One study found that placing people in affordable housing lowered federal Medicaid expenditures by an average of 12%. And a University of Pennsylvania study found that taxpayers could save $16,000 per homeless person who was placed in affordable housing.

So we need to act. We need to realize that housing provides an investment in job creation and has historically contributed between 2% to 4% of GDP growth since the 1980s. That it is an underpinning of our economy, and that we need to make sure that our tax code works to make sure that people are purchasing homes, and also at finding affordable housing. I hope as our colleagues deal with the end of the year policy issues, in dealing with response to these storms, we'll realize that an underlying crisis also needs attention, that we have worked in a bipartisan basis in the past to address it, and we can work in a bipartisan basis in the future to both stimulate our economy and solve these problems. 90% of the affordable housing units being built in the country use these tax credits, so it's only by extending the tax credits, putting a roof over people's head that we are going to be able to deal with this crisis. The good news is it helps us save money, and it helps us with GDP growth. I thank the president, and I yield the floor.