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A Tax Credit Both Parties Can Get Behind | Commentary

As Congress returns to legislative business this month, key members will be putting pen to paper on comprehensive tax reform bills, marking a rare opportunity to set our priorities as a nation and decide what we want our taxpayer dollars to accomplish.

With every deduction, exemption and credit in the U.S. tax code potentially on the chopping block, here is one policy goal that should make the cut: Every person in the U.S. should have a decent, affordable place to call home.

I’ll be the first to admit that there have been misguided and poorly run housing programs. As a Republican chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, I authored legislation which led to the largest overhaul of public housing in more than 60 years. We eliminated funding for dysfunctional public housing authorities, enforced accountability and eliminated or consolidated dozens of duplicative programs.

But I also know a successful government program when I see one. And for my money, there is no better way to promote affordable housing than through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit.

The need for affordable housing has never been greater. Roughly 7 million people in America — including veterans, seniors, disabled people and working families with children — rely on federally subsidized housing as a last resort. Even when they are able to work, their incomes are simply too low to make rent on a market rate apartment, so it’s either subsidy or the street. Another 20 million families can’t access these subsidies and are spending more than half of their income on rent, leaving them one paycheck away from losing their home.

Without a consistent roof over their heads, families have little chance of working toward a better life. What mother is going to be able to find a job when she’s sleeping on a bench? What children will be ready to learn, focus and do their homework if they woke up that morning in a shelter? Having a home doesn’t guarantee that they’ll overcome these challenges, but not having one assures the problems will persist.

Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan as part of our last comprehensive tax reform in 1986, the housing credit is America’s main tool for building and preserving affordable homes, creating 2.6 million and counting.

It is also a critical catalyst for economic development, making a profound impact on local economies by creating 95,000 jobs — many in small businesses — across the country each year, boosting consumer spending and providing much-needed tax revenue to states and municipalities.

It does so in a way that harnesses the capital and entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector through true public-private partnerships, generating more than $100 billion in private investment since its inception.

The program is administered by the states, so federal bureaucracies are largely taken out of the equation, with flexibility to meet the specific needs of their communities.

Unlike a direct funding program, private investors — not the federal government — provide money up front and bear the financial risk. If the program’s requirements aren’t met for whatever reason, taxpayers get their money back, offering an extremely high level of accountability.

The housing credit promotes job growth, strengthens communities, leverages private capital, encourages federalism, sidesteps bureaucracies and holds stakeholders accountable. If Republicans were to design an affordable housing program from scratch today, it would look like the housing credit.

As my former colleagues in Congress consider tax reform, I urge them to recognize and preserve the solutions that work. After decades of helping working families, boosting local economies and achieving real-world results, the housing credit is a government program we can all get behind.

Former Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., is a trustee of Enterprise Community Partners Inc. and a partner at Jones Walker LLP, where he heads the New York office.

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