Sometimes it seems as if politicians can always find a justification for spending more taxpayer dollars. Despite numerous academic studies and state auditor reports showing the ineffectiveness of low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs), proponents are now arguing for the program’s revival by pushing exaggerated claims of economic activity that the credits allegedly generate.
As my colleagues have discussed many times before, three consecutive state auditors (both Democrat and Republican) have concluded that the LIHTC program spends less than $0.42 of each dollar on affordable housing. As of 2017, there were over a billion dollars of LIHTCs outstanding or available to be issued, and those are dollars that won’t be available for spending on existing state services. It should be obvious that Missourians deserve better stewardship of their hard-earned tax dollars, but the program’s supporters argue those figures don’t adequately capture the economic benefits the state receives.
The target of the proponents’ critique is the economic modeling tool the state uses to measure the impact of government programs. One conclusion from the 2017 audit that used the model in question was, over a span of 15 years, Missouri received only $0.12 return for each dollar invested in LIHTCs. But proponents argue the model is “incomplete and thus questionable,” and as one elected official recently noted regarding LIHTCs, “value and effectiveness can’t always be quantified in data.”
It is important to note that the critique relating to the audit’s findings does not mention the inefficiencies of the program. Literature on the topic is clear that the regulations surrounding the construction and development of low-income housing inflate project costs. And there are now multiple academic studies that show the federal program does not significantly increase the amount of available affordable housing.
While the LIHTC program is considered a tool for economic development, its effectiveness should be measured by its ability to achieve its defined purpose—increasing the availability of affordable housing in Missouri. More specifically, how have the credits Missouri has issued in addition to the credits offered by the federal government induced additional development of affordable housing, and at what cost?
As the research indicates, the LIHTC program is not an effective or efficient way to increase the amount of affordable housing across the state, regardless of the claims of economic impact made by the program’s supporters. As policymakers consider reviving the state’s practice of issuing LIHTCs, their decision should be based not on the emotional appeal for new housing, but on whether the program as currently constructed is a justified use of their constituents’ tax dollars. The evidence indicates it is not.