Last week, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), whose home state of California is facing one of the worst crises of affordable housing in a country where nearly 40 percent of renters are considered cost-burdened, introduced a bill intended to give renters some long-overdue help.
The bill, called the Rent Relief Act, is a companion to legislation of the same name introduced in the House last summer by Congressman Joe Crowley (D-NY), of New York. It would create a refundable tax credit for families that spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, with a sliding scale based on income. At the low end, families whose income is less than $25,000 a year could claim a credit for 100 percent of the rent they paid that year, while at the upper end, families earning between $75,000 and $100,000 could claim a credit for 25 percent of their rent. The credit would be capped so that renters could only claim a discount for rents that fall within 150 percent of Fair Market Rent. It would also allow families in subsidized housing to claim a credit for one month’s worth of rent each year. And perhaps most significantly, it would represent a major show of support for struggling renters from the federal government, which typically does much more to help homeowners than renters.
Bracket, for a moment, the fact that the bill has almost no chance of passing under the current political configuration in Congress. Does it make sense as policy? And even without passing, could it create political momentum for a new type of investment in housing at the federal level?
A recent Pew study found that 38 percent of renter households were cost-burdened—paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing—in 2015, a share that had risen nearly 20 percent since 2001. Across the country, 17 percent of those households were paying more than half their income towards rent in 2015, according to the same study. And the figures were even higher—46 percent cost-burdened—for African-American-led renter households.
Moreover, as Harris recently claimed in a statement rated “Mostly True” by Politifact, someone earning the minimum wage in 99 percent of counties in America is unable to afford a typical one-bedroom apartment.
“We are in a growing housing crisis where we have more renters than ever before, but our federal investment in affordable housing and rental assistance have been chronically underfunded,” says Sarah Mickelson, senior director of policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which backs the bill. “And the result is that you have millions of low-income seniors, people with disabilities, families with children and other individuals who are struggling to pay rent and meet their other basic needs. And unfortunately, we haven’t funded other federal programs at the level that’s necessary to serve these folks.”
The proposal in the Rent Relief Act is modeled on a policy paper from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, called “The FAIR Tax Credit.” That paper laid out a number of potential changes to the tax code that could help renters dealing with a diminishing supply of affordable housing, one of which was providing a tax credit to all cost-burdened renters. The Terner Center estimated it would around $76 billion.
“It’s really important to also expand supply, but in lots of markets there’s a real gap between incomes and supply,” says Carolina Reid, a faculty research advisor at the Terner Center and co-author of the FAIR Tax Credit paper. “So to the extent that we actually really care about and value that people have a roof over their heads that they can afford … closing that gap is really important.”
The idea for a renters’ tax credit isn’t new, Reid says. But there’s an increasing recognition that stable housing is a prerequisite for all sorts of other civic goals.
Will Fischer, a senior policy analyst at The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says that pushing a tax credit like the one in the Rent Relief Act is an important show of recognition of the housing crisis at the federal level. But a tax credit isn’t the only way to help renters, he says. The CBPP released a policy paper in February calling for a new type of housing voucher targeted to families with young children. The vouchers would be prioritized for families with a history of housing instability. And if it were phased in, it would cost about $13.5 billion over five years, the CBPP says.
“There are other federal programs that help develop and rehabilitate affordable housing, and that’s part of the solution too,” Fischer says. “But really, the biggest thing is providing rental assistance to help families afford housing.”
Some commentators are arguing that a renters’ tax credit would end up benefiting landlords, by letting them jack up the prices on rent knowing that tenants have additional assistance from the government. And of course there are bound to be controversies about which states are “giving” or “taking” when it comes to the cost of such a federal tax credit. One New Hampshire writer, lamenting that Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan was cosponsoring the Rent Relief Act, even though rent isn’t as burdensome in New Hampshire as it is in California. The state would be a net contributor to the tax credit, that observer wrote, “And what will New Hampshire taxpayers be subsidizing? Solar mandates on the liberal West Coast.”
But some local housing advocates say a tax credit would be harder for landlords to abuse than the Section 8 voucher system. A refundable tax credit would put cash directly in the pocket of renters, rather than going to their landlords, notes Beth McConnell, the policy director for the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations. In effect, if it’s refundable even beyond a renter’s yearly tax liability, it could be like giving low-income renters a raise. On the other hand, renters at the lowest end of the income scale would still have a hard time using an annually disbursed tax credit to pay for monthly housing costs, McConnell says. And as with any credit, a lot of work would have to be done to make sure that all eligible taxpayers are claiming it.
Even with a slim chance of passage this year, housing advocates praised the bill. It’s been too long that housing hasn’t been at the top of the Congressional agenda. Harris’s office says it’s working on building support for the measure in Congress, and that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) had recently signed on as a cosponsor. Ultimately, advocates say, it’s not primarily a problem of policy but of political will.
“I think the reason that we see this legislation being introduced now is the increasing recognition that our tax code is skewed toward the wealthy,” says Reid, of the Terner Center. “We need to do something to help lower-income households and renter households.”
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter.
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.