New Developments: Time to ‘Build Back Better’

5 min read

With the conclusion of the 2020 elections, Washington is once again embracing a season of change which includes the transition process from the Trump Administration to the Biden Administration as well as from the 116th to the 117th Congress.

In traditional times, the transition period is a time for stakeholders to prepare advocacy strategies for the incoming administration (as well as the new Congress) and to educate policymakers on stakeholder issues and where they may fit into the administration’s priorities. Given the scope of challenges government faces today, President-elect Joseph Biden and his team will not have much of a honeymoon once they take office. They will want to hit the ground running and immediately pursue the strategies they have outlined in their ambitious “Build Back Better” plan. The first 100 days of the Biden-Harris Administration will be focused on addressing four major priorities: COVID-19; economic recovery; racial equity and climate change. Our job as affordable housing advocates in the near term is to help make the connection between affordable housing and these key priorities.

Fortunately, this is not a hard sell. Affordable housing production and preservation directly addresses all of these items, and the Biden-Harris team has actually acknowledged this directly throughout the campaign. They have called for:

  • The expansion of both the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and New Markets Tax Credit;
  • Full funding for Section 8;
  • The expansion of numerous other housing and community development programs; and
  • The establishment of a $100 billion Affordable Housing Fund to construct and upgrade affordable housing.

These would be exciting changes that would empower community development professionals to dramatically expand their work. Of course, the president can only suggest funding amounts. Congress has to appropriate the funds and with the likelihood of a divided Congress, it is also critical that we pursue administrative policy solutions.

It should be acknowledged upfront that affordable housing and historic preservation construction is a very efficient economic recovery tool. There are hundreds of shovel-ready projects ready to employ thousands of workers experiencing economic hardship of all skill levels, and affordable housing, in particular, provides much-needed stability for families experiencing economic hardship. In the spirit of “Build Back Better,” I’m going to highlight the programs that are working well but could be tweaked to work better and, in doing so, help facilitate the Biden-Harris Administration’s stated priorities.

While there is some encouraging news on Coronavirus vaccines, it is not a silver bullet for the construction industry. Mass availability for the general populace is unlikely before the third quarter of 2021. This has a real effect on the type of work that can be done (in-place rehab most severely impacted) and the amount of time it takes. And that is to say nothing about the impact COVID-19 has on the supply chain for all manner of construction and building materials. To avoid chilling the marketplace further, HUD, the IRS and the Treasury Department must coordinate long-term extensions to critical program deadlines (Placed In Service, carry-over, etc.) and provide other similar types of regulatory relief to affordable housing providers so they can focus their time and resources on safe construction protocols, supply sourcing and serving resident needs and not requests for regulatory relief.

President-elect Biden has called for dramatically expanding the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). While great progress was made during the Obama Administration to better coordinate between HUD and the Department of Energy (DOE) so that WAP funds could be deployed in multifamily affordable housing, there continues to be a major regulatory barrier – DOE will only issue WAP funds as grants and will not allow them to be structured as loans. We do not believe there is any statutory basis to this position, which needlessly creates a taxable event to the owner and reduces other subsidy sources to the low-income community by decreasing eligible basis on LIHTC properties.

The reuse of historic buildings is far more sustainable than demolition and new construction and should continue to be an important priority to help stop climate change. The irony is that too many opportunities are missed because orthodox interpretations of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation often make it impossible to incorporate sustainable features into historic buildings like renewable energy, blow-in insulation or high-performing windows and fenestration. The Standards can and should be interpreted with the priority of sustainability and climate change in mind or they should be amended explicitly.

These opportunities are just the tip of the iceberg. I’d like to close my column by asking for your help. NH&RA succeeds as an advocacy organization because of the collective efforts of our members. Let us know about the challenges you are facing and your ideas on how the incoming administration can “Build Back Better.” If for everything there is a season, let’s help make this the time to build back better.

Thom joined National Housing & Rehabilitation Association (NH&RA) in 2004 and currently serves as its as Executive Vice-President and Executive Director. NH&RA is a national trade association and peer-network for affordable housing and tax credit developers and related professionals including: investors, lenders, public agencies and professional advisers. Thom directs the association’s day-to-day operations including legislative and regulatory advocacy, committee activities, conferences and events, publications, financial management and strategic planning. Thom also serves as the Executive Director of the Tennessee Developers Council, a state-wide trade association for affordable housing developers and professionals active in Tennessee. In 2013 he spearheaded the launch of NH&RA's Preservation through Energy Efficiency Project, a major educational initiative supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Thom also serves on the Board of Directors for International Center for Appropriate & Sustainable Technology (iCAST) as well as the Advisory Board for its ResourceSmart program, a turn-key, cost-effective, green rehab provider for multifamily affordable and market-rate housing communities and nonprofit facilities. Thom is a frequent speaker at affordable housing, sustainable development and tax credit industry events and has been published in a variety of industry journals including Tax Credit Advisor, Independent Banker, and the Novogradac Journal of Tax Credit Housing. Thom also serves as the Associate Publisher of Tax Credit Advisor, a monthly magazine for tax credit and affordable housing professionals and is an Executive Vice-President at Dworbell Inc., a boutique association management and communications firm in Washington, DC. Thom was previously employed at a national lobbying firm focusing on financial services and technology issues. Prior to moving to Washington, Thom worked in media relations in the New York State Assembly and as a research assistant for New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen. Thom graduated Magna Cum Laude from Tufts University with a double major in Political Science and History.