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Countdown to the Midterms: Housing Legislation Hangs in the Balance

By Federal Policy Director Ellen Lurie Hoffman

 

With the midterm elections just a couple weeks away, Congress left town and Washington entered a strange limbo period.  The outcome of the election will determine not just which party will have the majority in Congress for the next couple of years, but which policies will be prioritized, how goals will be defined, and who will assume or maintain leadership positions.  We can speculate on how things will look on November 7, but for now we just have to wait. In the meantime, NHT will continue encouraging all our residents and partners to register and vote, while we take stock of the legislative items potentially on the agenda.

Let’s be clear what’s at stake in this election:

Leadership

Which party controls Congress will determine who will chair the key committees with jurisdiction over affordable housing resources, e.g. the appropriations, tax-writing, and authorizing committees.  Further, individual congressional races and the composition of Congress will impact which Members of Congress rise to leadership positions within each party.  “Musical chairs” is likely to ensue regardless of which party is the majority after the election.

Housing Credits

Along with our partners, NHT has been advocating for the passage of the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act, also known as the Cantwell-Hatch bill (S. 548/H.R. 1661), a bill to strengthen and expand the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.   The outcome of the election will reveal the likelihood that Congress will consider tax extenders legislation, which may present an opportunity to advance provisions from the Cantwell-Hatch bill.  The election results will also impact who is likely to be the lead cosponsor of the Senate bill after Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hatch retires and the chances of passing the legislation in its entirety next year.

Appropriations

Similarly, the election will influence whether a majority of Members of Congress favor a new bipartisan budget agreement eliminating or temporarily raising the sequestration caps on defense and non-defense spending, after the current two-year agreement ends in 2020.  This will impact the level of funding available for critical affordable housing resources including project-based rental assistance, Housing Choice Vouchers, and the HOME Investments Partnerships Program.  For perspective, although the current budget agreement raised spending caps, HUD program funding remains below 2010 funding levels, adjusted for inflation.  Due to funding limitations, it also remains the case that only about one in four households eligible for rental assistance will receive it.

Administration Initiatives

The composition of Congress will affect the Trump Administration’s ability to push forward regulatory and other Executive Branch initiatives which directly impact affordable housing.  A strong Democratic majority in the House (or Senate) -- which could hold hearings and question Administration officials -- may slow or weaken the Administration’s ability to act unilaterally.  Current Administration proposals include the roll back of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule and reform of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA).

New Housing Legislation

In the past few months, several Senate Democrats have introduced innovative new bills designed to increase the supply of affordable housing.  Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) proposed legislation to offer a refundable tax credit to households making less than $100,000-125,000 a year and spending at least 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities.  Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced a bill that would provide a refundable tax credit to individuals earning at or below 80 percent of median income who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, present savings incentives to renters receiving the tax credit, and encourage inclusionary zoning as a way to increase the supply of affordable housing and reduce housing discrimination based on race and income.  Most recently, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) proposed comprehensive legislation that would invest $999 billion into the National Housing Trust Fund, the Capital Magnet Fund, a new Middle-Class Housing Emergency Fund, rural housing programs, and an Indian Housing Block Grant. Warren’s bill would allocate $10 billion to a new competitive grant program that communities could use to build infrastructure, parks, roads, or schools if they reform land use rules that currently restrict the construction of new affordable housing.  Warren’s legislation would also provide down payment assistance to first time homebuyers in areas with a history of redlining or segregation, as well as $2 billion to support financial crisis relief.  Finally, her bill would extend CRA to cover more financial institutions and toughen sanctions, strengthen anti-discrimination laws, and streamline the administration of housing vouchers throughout housing markets.

The likelihood that any of these bills moves forward in Congress depends directly upon the outcome of the midterm elections.  It is heartening to see three Senators attempting to address the affordable rental housing crisis through legislation, particularly since all three are rumored to be eyeing a run for the White House in 2020.  Congressional appetite to consider these or other proposals and allocate new resources to affordable housing will be determined by the composition of Congress in the next two years. 

So much is at stake in the midterm elections for our country and for residents of affordable housing in particular.  For now, NHT will continue working to ensure every one of our residents is registered and encouraged to vote.  Stay tuned and don’t forget to vote!

10.22.2018