LIHTC Pilot Finds Permanence
Missouri’s low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program is bad, but is it getting better? Earlier this year I wrote about a proposed pilot program that aimed to improve the program’s return on investment. After some apparent success, the Missouri Housing Development Commission (MHDC) recently decided to expand the pilot program and make it a permanent feature. Don’t get me wrong, I still think LIHTCs are a bad use of state tax dollars. But if Missouri’s elected officials are going to continue investing in the program, serious reform efforts cannot come soon enough.
As I’ve written before, the LIHTC program awards tax credits to housing developers to offset construction costs. In exchange, the developers are required to rent a fraction of their units to low-income tenants. Missouri’s program is a supplement to the federal LIHTC and has a long history of poor returns on investment. When Missouri’s version of LIHTC was revived last year after a three-year hiatus, LIHTC boosters promised reforms to address some of the program’s much-discussed shortcomings. This pilot program was one of those reforms.
The purpose of the pilot program is to increase the sales price of LIHTCs by allowing housing developers to claim them more quickly. One of the biggest problems with these credits is that they’re awarded to developers over ten years—but upon being rewarded, developers often immediately sell the credits to investors to raise the capital necessary to fund the project’s construction. When something is sold today that can’t be claimed for a decade, it has to be sold at a discount, in part because of the time value of money. In many cases, Missouri’s LIHTCs have sold for as little as forty cents on the dollar. This means is state taxpayers are basically guaranteed a bad return on investment, because the thing they’re paying $1 for is being immediately sold for less.
The new pilot program allowed 20 percent of the state’s approved projects to claim their credits more quickly over the first five years, and more slowly the final five. The total cost to state taxpayers remains the same, the value of the credits for investors is increased because of the time value of money. Initial reports suggest this change worked and increased the market value of each credit by roughly $0.10. However, if credits were previously selling for $0.40 and now are selling for $0.50, that still means taxpayers are still losing half of their investment immediately.
Going into next year, the number of projects eligible for this pilot will be bumped up to 50 percent. And with more projects receiving accelerated redemptions, that should mean more credits are sold for higher prices, which in turn could slightly improve the dismal return on investment for state taxpayers. Supporters of the pilot also say that higher sales prices will allow the MHDC to subsidize more projects, because each developer will request fewer credits. It remains to be seen whether these claims will hold true with additional years of data.
Make no mistake, I still think the LIHTC program is a bad deal for Missouri. It is truly remarkable that such a meager improvement in credit sale price is being celebrated as a big win for the troubled program, when taxpayers are still expected to lose so much of each credit sold. Much more needs to be done before LIHTC even comes close to being considered a worthwhile investment for our state.