November 3, 2016; Next City

A new report from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley is generating some buzz in the rental advocacy world. The report “costs out” the Federal Assistance In Rental (FAIR) program, which would provide a tax credit to lower income households that are rent burdened, which means “paying more than 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities.” (The report does not specify whether gross or net income is used in the calculation.) The report offers three options for a renter tax credit that could expand resources going to rental households while reducing the outlays for existing subsidy programs.

  • The Rent Affordability option would make up the difference between a household’s rent and the HUD-established Small Area Fair Market Rent so that the household pays no more than 30 percent of its income in rent. Any household that is below 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) and rent burdened would be eligible. To provide full coverage for 13.3 million households, the report estimates a cost of $76B, but notes that some of the cost could be offset by reduced spending for housing choice vouchers and homeless services.
  • The Rent Reduction option would provide a credit to more families, 15.1 million, but credits would be capped at a lower level of 12 to 33 percent of rent. While this plan would leave households with some rent burden, nearly all renters making less than 80 percent of AMI would receive some financial relief. Rent Reduction option would be much cheaper ($41B) than the Rent Affordability option.
  • A Composite plan would offer the Rent Reduction option to the majority of households and the more ambitious Rent Affordability option to a smaller number of extremely low-income families. The composite plan would assist 15.1 million households at a cost of $43B. To address the problems reaching extremely low income households, the credit in the Composite plan could be provided to landlords, more like a housing choice voucher.

Anticipating some “sticker shock,” the Terner study’s authors, Carol Galante, Carolina K. Reid, and Nathaniel Decker, offer some suggestions for implementation that might lower the cost. However, they caution that these restrictions could undermine the savings that could be realized in existing programs. Interestingly, the study has suggested a pilot project to assess how the FAIR plan would impact families and housing markets. The idea of test-driving a radical new policy makes some sense since there may be cost savings from a reduction in eviction and an enhancement of household mobility. A pilot might give some clues about whether a renter subsidy would improve or degrade housing quality standards. Would the absence of regulatory standards lead tenants to choose lower quality units, or would households use their enhanced “buying power” to choose better quality units? Probably some of both.

There are five good reasons for the new Congress and the president-elect to consider a renter’s tax credit.

Administrative savings from a simpler administration does not mean administration is simple. Even though a renter’s tax credit could reduce lots of bureaucracy, the IRS would need to figure out the right level of support for each household based on household income, the amount of rent they pay, and the fair market rent in their community. That’s a lot of math. Then too, Congress would need to figure what to do for households that don’t file income taxes or households that have less conventional living situations. Finally, there would need to be a way for households to receive their credit monthly in order to pay rent. Usually, tax credits come annually. At least initially it could be hard for a household to figure out what level of subsidy they are likely to receive, making it hard to make reasonable choices. One can imagine a new cadre of “navigators” like those created for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Under a system of renter tax credits, tenants would need to become their own inspectors, financial managers, and code enforcers. No one from government will be checking for housing quality standards, rent reasonableness, or unconscionable lease provisions. That could mean tenants would need more reliance on private counselors and legal services agencies for support when things go wrong in the landlord-tenant relationship. On the other hand, tenants with a renter tax credit would not face the roadblock of discrimination based on source of income.

It is hard to assess the likelihood of a renter tax credit in the near future. Tax reform seems to be on the short list for congressional action in 2017, but, as usual, rental housing is not high on the agenda. The FIRED (Finance, Investor, Real Estate, Developer) lobbyists will be opposed to shifting tax benefits away from wealthy property owners to tenants. Still, the concept has been endorsed by a wide variety of groups and rental tax credits could meet some objectives of Republicans who know they need to govern, not just obstruct. Many in Congress represent low-income renters who are expecting something tangible in return for their support for President-elect Trump. Others in Congress might see renter tax credits as a counter to the wave of rent control measures bubbling up from local areas. Time will tell.—Spencer Wells