When the National Low Income Housing Coalition first launched our proposal to fund the building and preservation of affordable housing with the savings from modification of the mortgage interest deduction, there were skeptics who told us the mortgage interest tax break was untouchable. With everything we heard about “sacred cows” and “third rails,” it would not have surprised us if we suddenly found ourselves working on a dairy farm or in a subway station.
Just a few weeks have passed, and it seems the cows have shed their halos and the rails are no longer electrified. The reality of our nation’s fiscal challenges has shocked many in Congress into realizing that what was once viewed as untouchable might indeed be a source of funding for many things, including deficit reduction.
Conventional wisdom aside, it just so happens that this is far from the first time the mortgage interest deduction has come under scrutiny. Back in 1984, even President Reagan suggested that it might be worth reconsidering the deduction. But even more relevant to our interests is a 1972 proposal from HUD Secretary George W. Romney (father of Governor Mitt Romney) for a “staged reduction” in the mortgage interest deduction, with a shift of the savings to affordable housing for low income people.
In the midst of the fear and furor over sequestration and the fiscal cliff (and the argument over whether there even is a cliff at all), it is easy to forget one simple truth: as it is, the federal programs that provide safe, affordable housing for the lowest income Americans do not have enough funding to serve all of the people who need them. Housing advocates wish we had the luxury of defending housing programs from “entitlement reform;” while entitlements like Social Security are promised to everyone who qualifies, only about 25% of people who qualify for housing assistance receive it, because the funding just isn’t there to serve everyone who needs help with housing. The result? For every 100 extremely low income renter households, there are only 30 housing units affordable and available to them. This means that 4.3 million renter households stand at the edge of their own fiscal cliff, every day of the year.
So before they go scrambling to fill in holes in the federal budget with money from sacred-cow deductions, we hope lawmakers take a step back and consider the impact investing these savings into people and communities, not just deficit holes, could have. Building and rehabilitating affordable housing means low income renters will have some disposable income to spare, and they can then spend that cash in their communities. Safe, stable housing means kids who can concentrate in school, and go on to lead productive, fulfilling lives. Healthy homes for families and seniors mean lower healthcare costs for all of us.
We think it’s time to reform the mortgage interest deduction and use the savings to fund the National Housing Trust Fund, which can build and rehabilitate housing that lower income people can afford. If you feel similarly, we hope you’ll sign on to support our proposal and help us show lawmakers that there is a better way.