Why Subsidizing Teacher Housing with Tax Credits Is Bad Policy

(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Financed by a new state tax credit, construction workers in Nebraska work on repairing housing.

Late last month California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Teacher Housing Act of 2016—a bill (as its preamble states) that will “facilitate the acquisition, construction, rehabilitation, and preservation of affordable housing restricted to teachers and school district employees.” Critically, the legislation allows California to use its federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) to finance teacher housing—making it the first state in the country to do so.

The law has been sold as a win-win for everyone, and certainly on its face, it sounds appealing. There’s broad recognition that housing is increasingly expensive—especially in exorbitantly pricey cities like San Francisco. Americans strongly support their public school teachers—77 percent say they continue to “trust and have confidence” in them. Moreover, California is grappling with teacher shortages, and champions of the new law believe that providing housing assistance could help attract and retain quality educators, strengthening local communities to boot.

But make no mistake: There are some real losers here.

The LIHTC was established as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, and today it is the country’s largest federal program to support place-based, affordable rental housing. The Internal Revenue Service runs it, but individual states get considerable freedom to decide how to distribute their tax credits, so long as they meet federal requirements. One such requirement is that units must target households earning 60 percent or less of the area median income.

This 60 percent threshold is notably higher than other federal affordable housing programs, like Section 8 vouchers and public housing. While LIHTC units built in high-poverty neighborhoods house extremely poor tenants, plenty aren’t built there, which is why tax-credit tenants tend to have higher incomes than recipients of other federal rental assistance programs.

Given that federal housing subsidies are in limited supply, the allocation of tax credits to fund teacher housing merits more scrutiny than it’s received.

“The low-income housing tax credit is meant for single mothers who didn’t graduate from high school, not those people with college degrees and masters degrees,” says Keren Horn, an economist at University of Massachusetts Boston who studies the LIHTC. “Tax credits are targeted at 60 percent of AMI, and if teachers in your metropolitan area are earning less than that, I think the answer is you have to raise their income.”

And then of course, how do we justify giving housing subsidies to some public workers but not others? Why subsidize teachers’ housing but not nurses’? Or trash collectors’?

“It’s a bad idea, and it gets people competing with each other over who is the most oppressed,” says Peter Dreier, an urban policy professor at Occidental College. “A lot of colleges provide housing subsidies for their employees, and if an employer wants to do that as a benefit, or something negotiated through collective bargaining—sure. But the government shouldn’t be in that business.”

Nationally, nearly 20 million renter households have incomes low enough to qualify for federal subsidies, but fewer than one out of four of these households receive anything at all. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the number of unassisted renters with “worst case” housing needs—meaning they pay more than half of their incomes for housing, or live in severely substandard conditions—rose by 30 percent between 2007 and 2013.

These trends hold broadly true in California as well. In 2016, more than 1,590,000 poor California households paid more than half their incomes on rent, a 28 percent increase from before the recession. The budget for public housing in the state shrank by more than $56 million between 2010 and 2014. More than 113,000 Californians live in shelters, or on the streets.

California’s new teacher housing law does not make more money available for developers of affordable housing; it allows developers to amend the list of eligible recipients. The result is potentially fewer resources available for deeply impoverished families.

The law also carries racial implications. During the 2014-2015 school year, 65 percent of California public school teachers were white; four percent were black, and 19 percent were Hispanic. By contrast, a 2012 HUD report says that roughly 56 percent of the residents in California's tax credit units were black or Hispanic, and only 28 percent were white. It’s realistic to worry that this new law will facilitate the transfer of resources away from poor people of color to (oft-struggling) middle-class white professionals.

The federal government used to prohibit states from awarding LIHTC to specific occupations. There’s an IRS rule that all residential units have to be available for “general public use.”

But in 2008, as Congress was working on a new housing bill in the wake of the housing market collapse, a group of developers who build housing for artists successfully lobbied for a “general use” exemption. Since then, LIHTC-funded housing complexes restricted specifically for artists have increased considerably.

In May, the Prospect covered a new report on these artist housing complexes, which were found to have far whiter and comparatively more affluent tenants than one typically finds in LIHTC projects. Coining these developments “Politically Opportune Subsidized Housing”—or POSH—the report’s authors noted that such projects carry great political appeal, since using tax credits to support redevelopment and urban revitalization—in this case, supporting the arts—is far less divisive than building new housing for poor black and Latino families.

Myron Orfield, the director of the Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity, which published the artist housing report, says teacher housing feels an awful lot like artist housing. (In fact, California’s new teacher housing law was passed precisely to legislate the same kind of statutory exemption that Congress carved out for artists in 2008.)

Orfield also notes the lucrative opportunities these projects offer developers, who often struggle to use affordable housing tax credits in more affluent communities. The prospects for LIHTC construction in suburban areas become much more favorable if the developments would go towards housing middle-class public school teachers, who are disproportionately white.

“If you build housing in whiter, suburban neighborhoods, those projects would be worth more to the developer, they would appreciate faster, and there also would be more incentives for developers to turn the units into market-rate rentals as fast as they can,” says Orfield. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to build higher-value housing, but what you should do is build true affordable housing for low-income people, instead of taking a political short cut by making it only for teachers.”

The teacher housing idea is already spreading to other states, including areas that do not face acute struggles to afford housing. In Baltimore, where some teacher housing developments recently cropped up, developers say they built it not because affordable housing was hard to find, but because they wanted to reward educators with “Class-A apartments.” In Newark, developers touted the urban revitalization potential of teacher housing. Others say teacher housing will lead to stronger relationships between students and educators, fortifying communities more broadly.

It’s worth noting that while a growing number of researchers have explored how housing instability negatively impacts student achievement, there is no real evidence that says teachers living in the same school district where they work improves public education, student-teacher relationships, or local communities. And as The Learning Policy Institute, a Palo Alto-based education think tank noted last month, housing incentive programs have never even been studied to determine if they’re effective at recruiting or retaining teachers. (An LA Times investigation found that local teachers earned too much to even qualify for the affordable housing complexes the Los Angeles Unified School District recently built for its educators.) Plus, while research does suggest that teacher turnover negatively affects student learning, plenty of workers take on longer commutes in exchange for higher salaries.

Evidence of a national teacher housing crisis is also thin: A report issued last month by the National Housing Conference found that high school teachers earning median wages could rent a two-bedroom home in 94 percent of the 210 metro areas they studied, and teachers could purchase a median-price home in 62 percent of the metro areas. The report did not even take into account whether the teacher had a second income-earner in their household, suggesting the homeownership statistics are likely much higher.

Rather than carve out exceptions for certain jobs, Dreier says his state must tackle the housing crisis afflicting all middle class Californians, which means building more permanently affordable mixed-income housing, and protecting and preserving the affordable housing that already exists. In an era of tight resources, the public must find ways to prioritize supports for the most disadvantaged families, while also identifying new ways to improve the lives of the middle class. That’s the only real win-win. 

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