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‘Endangered’ tax credits a key part of financing affordable housing projects

The credits have provided 2.5 million affordable rental units since 1986, but they could be a casualty in any “grand bargain” reached by the president and Congress on the deficit.

New affordable housing developments, like Renaissance Box in Lowertown Saint Paul, seek to attract a mix of income levels among residents.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency

So far, the plan is still up in the air, but Dominium, a large multi-family housing developer, has tossed its hardhat in the ring to develop an affordable apartment project on a vacant lot owned by St. Paul in the historic Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood. The development would sit next door to Metropolitan State University, which lies east of downtown and north of I-94.

Dominium responded to a request for proposals by St. Paul with a pitch for 100 to 150 units of senior housing. Mississippi Market, the food cooperative, also proposed to put its third Twin Cities grocery store on the site. Presumably the two mesh. Groceries on the ground floor and customers only an elevator ride away would seem to be a winning combination.

Owen Metz, senior development associate for Dominium, says that as yet there’s been no formal market study; until St. Paul says it is officially interested, everything remains vague. Why senior affordable housing? He couldn’t name any particular reason. “There are amenities in the area and transportation,” he said.

A significant factor

In fact, the most significant factor in such a development can be the financing.

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Instead of going to a bank for a humongous loan, a developer of affordable housing, senior or otherwise, can rely on federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) to subsidize a good portion of the bills. But the credits, which have provided 2.5 million affordable rental units across the U.S. since the program began in 1986, could be under threat — a possible casualty in any “grand bargain” reached by the president and Congress to cut the deficit and close tax loopholes.

“There’s not as much of a constituency for affordable housing as for other tax benefits, like the home mortgage deduction,” says Chip Halbach, executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that promotes and advocates for affordable housing.

You’re probably wondering what makes housing “affordable.” Under federal guidelines, residents must earn less than 60 percent of the area’s median income, which in the Twin Cities area is currently about $83,900 for a family of four. Additionally, residents may pay no more than 30 percent of their income in rent. So, the maximum for a family of four in this area would be $1,259. That may seem like a pretty generous amount — average rent right now in the Twin Cities is $951 — but policy-makers hoped that by keeping the income limit somewhat forgiving, the program would create buildings with an income mix. 

Congress created the LIHTC to encourage private developers to construct and rehabilitate affordable rental housing. Without the incentive, developers would never bother building anything so unprofitable. The alternative would be to have the government build acres of public housing — which didn’t work out so well in the past. In city after city — Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, Minneapolis — such  projects, often poorly maintained and magnets for violence and gangs, have had to be demolished.

How the credits work

So how does the incentive work?

Each year, the Department of the Treasury issues tax credits to the states to build affordable housing. The amount is based on population, and this year, Minnesota received $11.7 million. Developers must apply to the state for the credits.

Mary Tingerthal
Mary Tingerthal

“Minnesota has a very public competition, complete with a scoring system, awarding points for items the state deems important,” says Mary Tingerthal, commissioner of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency.

Let’s say the developer has a $10 million project. The program allows him tax credits worth 9 percent of the total or $900,000, which can be claimed over a 10-year period. Generally, the developer sells the credits to a syndicate of investors who pool their money in a number of projects.

Depending on the state of the market, they may pay a little or a lot less than the face value. In the depths of the financial crisis, says Tingerthal, when investors were losing money and didn’t need tax credits, they were willing to pay only about 70 cents on the dollar. Now that the market has revived, the price is up to 95 cents. The developer uses funds from investors to finance construction and reduce rents.

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Oh, and the investors get an ownership stake in the project — plus other tax benefits like depreciation. (A project can include a mix of affordable and market-rate units, but only the affordable element qualifies for tax credits.)

Senior housing does not qualify for what’s called the 9 percent program. The reason: Back in the ’70s and early ’80s, the federal government induced a boomlet in senior housing construction, and Minnesota has quite a bit. Some 55 percent of the state’s affordable housing is devoted to seniors.

Developers like Dominium, however, can use the so-called 4 percent program. It allows a developer to finance part of its project with tax-exempt bonds (which now carry very low interest rates) and part with tax credits for 4 percent of his costs. And there’s no limit on the amount that can be used in any one year.

Good record of success

The tax credit program has been pretty successful. A study published this year found that 43 percent of the occupants of housing financed by the tax credit had  “extremely low” incomes, defined as less than 30 percent of the area median income. And, according to Enterprise, a Maryland nonprofit that provides technical expertise on the credits, the foreclosure rate for affordable projects has been less than 1 percent.

Still, I always worry a bit about tax credits. They can create a bit of a gold rush with the result that we end up with a lot of subsidized stuff — in this case, affordable housing — that we might not have needed.

Halbach doesn’t think that’s likely. He points out that many people are what I’d call house-poor — paying a huge portion of their incomes — sometimes as much as 50 percent — on rent. Data gathered by the Partnership show that in Hennepin County, a two-bedroom apartment might rent for $904. To pay for it, a worker would need to earn $17.38 an hour, 40 hours a week. The typical renter, however, earns only $15.82. Rents are about the same in Anoka County, but the typical wage for a renter there is only $10.82. Seniors, he adds, may be fine in market-rate apartments right now, but “their incomes won’t necessarily keep up with rent increases that occur year after year.”

But how much affordable housing does the metro need now and in the future? In point of fact, nobody really knows.

Says Tingerthal, “We are now in the process of working with the Metropolitan Council and other agencies to figure out what demand will be over the next 10 years.”

Obviously, there’s the “silver tsunami” in the offing, 78 million baby boomers passing age 65. But where they want to live and what they will need is anybody’s guess.

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“They’re not monolithic,” says Tingerthal. Presumably, some will move to apartments in cities to be close to mass transit. The vast majority, she suspects, will want to stay in the homes they occupy now.

Similarly, we don’t know how much need there will be for subsidized housing for the poor. Some of the gap may be taken up by private housing where rents are low because the buildings have aged or deteriorated.

Knowing what we’ve got and what we lack should help determine how big a tax credit program we need. But abolishing it altogether would be a calamity, says Tingerthal. “It’s true that the tax credits are an obscure program without a broad constituency. But we’ll fight very hard to keep it.”