One special section of the Senate Finance Committee's tax reform bill is of enormous importance. It provides tax credits for housing very poor people. If passed by Congress, with some important modifications, it will be the only significant government assistance for meeting the desperate housing needs of families with very low incomes.
These credits, although small and limited, are well targeted, and poor people will be the beneficiaries -- not developers, not syndicators, not wealthy individuals.
But "important modifications" are still essential. The finance committee's bill, as now written, would deny the use of tax credits to any housing that received funds from other federal programs. This means that if, for example, a city elected to use part of its federal community block grant funds to help make the housing affordable for very poor people, the tax credits would not be available. But the cost of much housing, even with tax credits, is beyond the affordable limits of many poor people most in need.
For the tax credits to have real meaning, cities must have the option to use all available resources to meet the most critical housing needs. Furthermore, eliminating existing accelerated depreciation for low-income housing in favor of tax credits, and then prohibiting the use of tax credits on housing that uses any form of federal subsidy, places more than 600,000 units of existing low-income housing in jeopardy of conversion to higher income use or of further deterioration.
The bill, as currently written, imposes restrictions to limit sharply or even prevent the use of the credit by individuals, particularly wealthy people. Yet these are the very people who must invest in housing for poor people to make the program work.
These limitations are correctable, and it is hoped that Sen. Robert Packwood and the senators who joined him in the preparation of this remarkable tax reform bill will see the conflict between useful tax shelters for poor people and restrictions that would make those provisions largely unusable.
The reform of tax shelter abuses, as proposed in the bill, is largely wise and fair. It eliminates "tax shelters" that have benefited certain sectors and individuals at the expense of fairness to all citizens. These industries will adjust to new, more even-handed realities, although the transition may be temporarily painful.
Certain "tax shelters" that have been retained have for many years benefited homeowners by allowing deduction of home mortgage interest and also interest on "second homes." These "tax shelters" cost the government more than $30 billion in 1985 and have primarily benefited middle- and upper-income people.
The proposed tax shelters for poor people, as modified, would be very small -- both absolutely and in relation to the tax shelters provided to individuals of much larger incomes.
In 1949, Congress issued a Declaration of National Housing Policy -- a challenge to the nation to realize "as soon as feasible the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family." The government encouraged the goal of decent housing for poor people primarily through direct subsidy programs and, also, through some small-scale tax incentive programs.
The recent call for involvement of the private sector in housing for the poor has followed massive cuts and eliminations in every category of direct federal housing assistance over the past five years. There are virtually no remaining federal production programs to provide decent low-income housing. And yet, the need increases, as seen in every federal statistic -- more families in poverty, less housing for them to occupy and at increasingly high rents. This is readily apparent in the painful situations witnessed daily in every major American city.
The private sector and local and state governments must respond if they are to be concerned with the needs of their own communities. Few resources exists for the federal part of this public-private partnership. The proposed tax incentives, properly modified, can mark an important federal participation.