Attend United for Action and Help Launch a Movement

One of the best things about conferences is that they give you the opportunity to stretch a little- mentally and physically. A good conference provides new information and pushes you to think differently about the way you do your work. And instead of being tied to a desk all day, a good conference has you moving from room to room, meeting new people and gaining new perspectives. Plus, if you’re traveling from out of town, you get a chance to explore a new place or revisit favorite spots in a city you enjoy.

United for Action, the NLIHC 2013 Housing Policy Conference and Lobby Day, is just that kind of conference. We hope you’ll excuse us for boasting a bit, but we’re pretty proud of everything we do to ensure that the time you spend with us March 17-20 is enriching, exciting and worth every penny. Just take a look at this Pinterest board full of pictures, tips and resources and you’ll see the energy we invest in making our conference an essential part of your housing advocacy year.

This year, because we’re launching our Housing Tax Reform campaign in connection with the conference, we think this event has more to offer than ever. We’re taking real leadership in the fight to create the first federal housing resource in 30 years to build and preserve housing for the poorest of the poor, and we know you’ll want to be part of the movement we’re building.

Intrigued? We hope so! Check out the registration site to learn more about the conference and reserve your place. Registration rates increase on March 1, so now is the time to take action.

Is homelessness something we can accept?

You’d have to have a pretty cold heart not to be moved by this story: an empathetic doctor and a homeless inventor partner together to launch the homeless man’s invention, changing both their lives in the process.

The story of Mike Williams, who became homeless after a series of financial setbacks, reminds us that as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, none of us are immune from personal disaster. Even for those with great talent or success, like Mr. Williams, hardship or homelessness could be just a short run of bad luck away.

The invention in question is a six-foot by six-foot pod with a chemical toilet, a “secure, safe place for the homeless and people [who] are displaced in society.”

Providing a safe place for people to live is a laudable goal. And no doubt, Mr. Williams has the skill and ingenuity to create something truly useful to many people. But a so-called survival pod is not a solution to homelessness.

Homelessness is not a permanent aspect of our society, nor is it a logical, unavoidable side-effect of capitalism that we must all come to accept. We should not strive to make homelessness easier for people; we should strive to end it. Homelessness exists because the housing available in our communities is too expensive for low-wage workers, seniors and people with disabilities to afford, and because some people have additional personal challenges like mental illness or domestic violence that make maintaining their housing even harder.

Survival pods, like homeless shelters, are at best an interim solution. What is necessary is for the supply of housing affordable to the lowest income Americans to increase. It is not complicated, and it can be done. Our proposal is to fund this increase through a modification of the home mortgage interest deduction that will make home ownership tax benefits available to more middle and lower income home owners, while simultaneously producing savings that can be invested in the production and preservation of housing affordable to extremely low income renters.

When it was signed into law in 2008, the National Housing Trust Fund was a beacon of hope for housing and homelessness advocates. The financial crisis of that year postponed its initial funding. But the country’s financial climate- and its political climate- have changed. Our conversations with Senators and their staffs have convinced us that the mortgage interest deduction as we know it is not long for this world. We have the chance, this year, to influence this rare and welcome debate. Our hope, and our effort, is renewed.

Mr. Williams, like all the rest of us, deserves the dignity of a safe, decent, affordable place to call home. Join with us in support of housing policy that will get us there.

Ending the Shortage of Affordable Housing with Housing Tax Reform

We’ve written often about the shortage of rental housing affordable and available to the lowest income Americans. This shortage complicates our national efforts to end homelessness, and makes it harder for the growing population of chronically underemployed workers to find decent housing they can afford.

A significant part of this real and serious problem is that federal housing policy does not adequately address the housing needs of lower income families and individuals. It’s about more than just the amount of money spent on HUD and USDA housing programs; it’s about how housing policy and tax policy combine to put tax dollars where they simply aren’t needed.

The mortgage interest deduction is a part of the tax code that allows some homeowners to deduct a portion of the interest they pay on their mortgage from their taxable income. The way the deduction is structured, the more money you earn, and the larger your mortgage, the bigger the tax deduction you will receive. According to the Office of Management and Budget, the mortgage interest deduction comes at a cost to the government of over $100 billion in 2013 alone. The entire HUD budget is less than half this amount.

But the problem isn’t just that one single subsidy to homeownership is larger than every other federal housing program combine. As this article in The Atlantic Cities shows, there is a geographic disparity in federal housing policy, as well. A small number of metropolitan areas on the coasts grab the majority of the benefit of the mortgage interest deduction, while those in the rest of the country benefit disproportionately little. To quote the article,

In 1999, the average subsidy per owner-occupied housing unit in the San Francisco/San Mateo/Redwood City metropolitan area was $26,385. In McAllen/Edinburg, Texas, on the other hand, it was $1,696. This is not the amount of interest these households deducted from their income on average. It’s the full amount they were able to save on their final tax bill (or, viewed from another angle, it’s the money the federal government didn’t receive as a result of subsidizing homeownership). About a third of this total directly comes from the mortgage interest deduction.

There is plenty of justification for making changes to federal housing policy generally, and to the mortgage interest deduction specifically. But the fact is, Americans love the mortgage interest deduction. We’ve come to value it so deeply that any discussion of making changes to it results in widespread fear that the government is trying to destroy the middle class.

It’s understandable that homeowners are protective of the mortgage interest deduction. Looking at the size of the savings our average San Francisco homeowner gained on her tax bill makes clear why: that’s a lot of money, and there are many people who could use a little more cash in their pockets right now. But the National Low Income Housing Coalition believes it is possible to rebalance federal housing policy and still retain tax benefits for the middle and lower-income Americans who really need it.

We propose a modification to the mortgage interest deduction that would make it available to all homeowners regardless of the amount of their mortgage, the size of their income or whether or not they itemize on their taxes. This proposal would also make mortgage interest tax breaks more available to homeowners in the wide swath of the country that isn’t benefiting much from the deduction right now. You can use our mortgage interest tax reform calculator to see how housing tax reform would impact your tax bill.

As an organization solely concerned with the housing needs of the lowest income Americans, we’re less interested in what our proposal would do for homeowners than in what it would do for low income renters. Our proposal would save the federal government around $30 billion a year that could be directed to programs that make housing affordable to extremely low income people. By funding the National Housing Trust Fund with savings from housing tax reform, we can accomplish the housing-related goals policymakers have for mortgage interest tax breaks while also addressing the pressing issue of homelessness. We think this is a win for the middle class, lower income people, and communities at large. Over 500 organizations from across the country agree.

News Round-Up: Sacred Cows

In housing news this week, we found encouraging signs that the conventional wisdom about housing policy might be changing, and continued concern that not enough is being done to end poverty and suffering in our nation.

CQ covers a new wrinkle in the tax debate raging in Washington: Willingness to let go of sacred cows. Both an NLIHC poll and a Pew poll indicate public support for modifying the mortgage interest deduction, and even the home builders are said to be open to a mortgage interest credit that would be helpful for first-time home buyers. NLIHC proposes converting the mortgage interest deduction into a 15% to 20% credit and capping it at interest on mortgages up to $500,000, and using the savings to fund the building and rehabilitation of affordable rental housing.

The Nation celebrated an anti-poverty Thanksgiving last week with reflections on the holiday from advocacy leaders and low income people. In her reflection, NLIHC President & CEO Sheila Crowley said, ” I will know that change has come when people are not sleeping outside on concrete in November two blocks from the White House.”

Finally, a column in Yes! Weekly explores the social cost of an economic and political system that requires minimum-wage workers to work 75 hours or more per week to be able to afford decent housing and other household expenses. The author suggests that other social ills could be the result if Americans cease to believe in the promise of the American dream.

News Round-Up: Closed

Waiting lists for housing assistance and restrictions against occupancy by those with bad rental records or criminal backgrounds make roadside motels one of the few housing options accessible to some extremely low income people. The closure of one such motel in Spokane, Wash. means about 50 such residents will be displaced. It’s not just these residents who are hurting. According to an NLIHC report cited in the article, over half of Spokane County residents pay more than 30% of their income for rent.

The closure of a nonprofit-run apartment complex in Durham, N.C. will result in homelessness for about 200 low income, elderly or disabled individuals, including children. Most of the residents are considered “working poor,” and the rents those households can afford to pay are simply not enough to cover the costs of operating and maintaining housing. Federal, state and local subsidies can fill the gap, but as advocates quoted in the article note, there are too few of those to go around.

In the Gaylord (Mich.) Herald-Times, an article notes that while the foreclosure crisis and tough economic conditions have made renting more appealing for many Americans, the truth in many communities is that renting is still out of reach for those making minimum wage. Services and funding for affordable housing development are scarce, but advocates quoted in the article urge those in need to come forward for help regardless.

It’s not just private or nonprofit housing that’s at risk of closing; public housing can disappear, too. In a report on the causes of homelessness experienced by women with children, Truthout notes that 10,000 units of U.S. public housing are lost to demolition or disposition each year. This means about 165,000 units of housing were lost between 1995 and 2010.

According to an opinion piece in the New York Times there are roughly the same number of assisted housing units now as there were in 2000, though the number of people living in poverty has grown by 14 million. The column’s authors, Yonah Freemark and Lawrence J. Vale, advocate NLIHC’s proposal to modify the mortgage interest deduction and use the savings from reform to fund the National Housing Trust Fund, as a fair and sensible solution to this problem.