Has the Housing Movement Found Something to Unite Around?

I've been around the affordable housing field for a little while (not as long as many of our readers though I realize), and I've sat through a lot of discussions […]

I've been around the affordable housing field for a little while (not as long as many of our readers though I realize), and I've sat through a lot of discussions about whether or not housing has a natural constituency, about how how we can get it on the political agenda, about how we need to speak with one voice and go on the offensive, and so on. You probably have too.

So I have to say that there's a palpably difference feel at the National Low Income Housing Coalition's annual conference this year. While it's always a place where a lot of education, networking, inspiring, and strategizing happens, this year pretty much everything going on here is bent on one goal:

Fund the National Housing Trust Fund by reforming the Mortgage Interest Deduction, and thereby end homelessness.

To do this, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) introduced the Common Sense Housing Investment Act last Friday. The act would:

  • Replace the mortgage interest deduction with a nonrefundable 15 percent tax credit, making it available to homeowners who don't itemize deductions. 

  • Lower the cap from mortgages of $1 million to $500,000. 

  • Phase in over 5 years.

  • Save $196 billion over 10 years, which would be directed to the National Housing Trust Fund ($109 billion), as well as Section 8, public housing capital funding, and the low-income housing tax credit.

This is no symbolic wouldn't-it-be-nice campaign.

NLIHC announced today that they were committing $1 million of their endowment to the campaign, which they are calling United for Homes. They have 1,000 organizations endorsing the campaign, and aiming for thousands more. They are working with Right to the City, and their new campaign, Homes for All, which has made NHTF funding part of its platform and its rallying stories and action at the grassroots.

They have polling data too (not online yet, but should be soon), and it's impressive. 60 percent of respondents support reforming the mortgage interest deduction in the ways Rep. Ellison's bill does. And 74 percent believed at least some of the savings should be spend on fighting homelessness. Broken down by demographic categories, it varied, certainly, but even among Republicans, a majority favored using at least some of the savings for ending homelessness.

I find many things interesting about this campaign, including the boldness of the vision—ending homelessness—with a specific, concrete plan to do it that doesn't involve a single step that is a political non-starter.

From the inside, what is particularly unusual is that the plan benefits both homeowners and renters. The reform itself would bring tax relief to millions of homeowners who before could not access it, and they are estimating that that, along with the predictability of it being a credit, will also increase homeownership by 2.5 percent. Then, of course, the lowest income renters, those who are hardest to serve with our existing programs, will be targeted by the Trust Fund.

This is a win-win across tenure types, a fact which NLIHC, which is used to focusing on extremely low-income renters, is going to have to remember to play up. Right to the City, whose members include tenant and homeowner groups, will likely lend a hand on that score. I hope organizations that have been focused on foreclosure relief and/or expanding homeownership also step up.

Given how long we've been writing about the mortgage interest deduction, it's fascinating to see it take a swift dive in just a few years from the untouchable third rail to something that many are speaking openly of reforming, from the right-wing/libertarian Cato Institute to the Bipartisan Policy Center. If NLIHC has been prescient enough to be at the right place at the right time to push reform on its terms and steer some of the benefits toward addressing the housing crisis, that will be a major, major win.

Conference participants will be off to the hill Wednesday to beat the bushes for cosponsors. We'll be following up with Rep. Ellison and the partner groups as the campaign progresses.

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