More to Be Done on LIHTC
2020 was a big year for Missouri’s low-income housing tax credit program (LIHTC). In September, the governor and Missouri Housing Development Commission (MHDC) revived the state’s program for subsidizing the construction and rehabilitation of low-income housing after a three-year hiatus (read more about the program and how it works here and here). And by the end of the year, more than $14 million in new LIHTCs had been awarded. We’re told the program has been reformed and will work better than ever before. But will it?
Prior to being halted in 2017, the state’s LIHTC program was plagued by several serious problems. As I’ve written many times before, Missouri’s program was one of the biggest in the country and was repeatedly shown to be ineffective, costly, and utterly lacking in accountability. Sufficiently addressing each of the program’s shortcomings has proven to be elusive for the state’s elected officials, with legislative attempts to reform the program failing over the past three years. Absent any legislative action, the governor and MHDC decided to bring the program back on their own terms by administratively implementing changes.
The MHDC’s changes include a yearly cap on state credits, a scoring rubric for project applications, and a new pilot program that allows more credits to be redeemed over the first five years (of ten total) of the project. At first glance, the changes seem to touch on each of the major issues with the program outlined above. But do they make the program worthy of taxpayer expense?
In theory, the yearly cap should make the program less costly because Missouri used to match each federal LIHTC on a dollar-for-dollar basis. A cap would mean that is no longer possible. The scoring rubric could add some accountability by showing how the chosen projects stack up against those that aren’t awarded funding. And the pilot program should make the credits more enticing to investors, and in turn, increase the value for which they can be sold.
After details of the revived program were made public, an optimistic real estate developer was quoted saying he expected the new state LIHTCs to sell for roughly sixty cents on the dollar. It is important to keep in mind what this means: Developers are happy to trade each taxpayer dollar they receive for a little more than half its value. How can LIHTC be a good investment for Missourians if the people who profit off the program believe what they’re receiving is worth much less than what state taxpayers are paying? It will be some time before there are enough data to determine the full effect of these changes, but even if this estimate of improved sale value is proven true, Missourians would still be receiving a very poor return on their investment.
The program’s revival is certainly a good deal for already-wealthy developers. But shouldn’t the governor and MHDC instead ensure that Missourians have an affordable housing policy that’s good for everyone?