D.C. Should Invest in Middle-Class Housing Affordability

The following is an op-ed column by Ward 4 City Councilmember Brandon T. Todd.

The District is facing an affordability crisis. Residents new and old, from all eight wards and of all races, ages and family sizes are finding it increasingly difficult to balance the costs of child care, utilities, transportation, health care and education. Washingtonians are leaving the city they love simply because they can no longer afford to live here. Bold action is required in response.

The multifaceted and broad affordability crisis manifests itself most acutely in the housing sector. Effective public policy to address affordable housing must therefore also be multifaceted and broad. That is why I introduced the Homestead Exemption Increase Act of 2019, a bill pending before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue.

This legislation would increase the District’s existing Homestead tax deduction from its current $74,850 to $125,000. This would allow homeowners the ability to deduct the first $125,000 from their property assessment. The proposed expansion would put an average of $426 back into the household budgets of nearly 200,000 District homeowners. Homeownership is the bedrock of our middle class, the source of considerable tax revenue for city services and the foundation of strong and stable neighborhoods, which is more important than ever as the District experiences breakneck growth and change.

This is a policy with the breadth necessary to provide a tangible benefit to a wide swath of D.C. residents struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living in the District. My colleagues on the D.C. Council initially recognized this by passing the bill out of committee on a 4-1 vote.

Since then, some members of the advocacy community have incorrectly stated that this legislation represents a giveaway to the richest among us. This could not be farther from the truth.

Thousands of homeowners throughout the District fall squarely in the middle and lower-middle class. Longtime residents have inherited legacy homes or decades ago purchased homes at a fraction of their current value. New residents spent their life savings on down payments. Both groups are committed and proud Washingtonians, but are struggling with the costs of homeownership, such as sizable mortgages and maintenance expenses and, yes, increasing property taxes. For young families, there are also the additional costs of raising children in the District.

According to the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue, 63 percent of homes in the District are assessed at less than $600,000. It is inaccurate and irresponsible to assume that anyone who owns a home is flush with cash. The data show that the value of their homes is more a reflection of the stunning increase in property values than an indication of their liquid wealth.

The value of homes in the District has risen much faster than the region and nation, placing a heavy tax burden on D.C. homeowners. According to an April 2017 report from the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO) based on research conducted by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, between 2002 and 2016, the District’s average home price grew 147 percent, compared to 55 percent regionally and 36 percent nationally.

Some opponents of the legislation have argued that the District cannot afford this middle-class tax break. This is again a misrepresentation of the facts. According to the OCFO, in 2019, the District will collect more than $445 million in residential property taxes from homeowners. In 2020, the OCFO predicts the District will collect more than $480 million. That $35 million increase would cover almost the entire fiscal impact of the legislation.

Who is fighting for the middle-class families who could use this small benefit to offset the 2020 increase in their taxes? Who is willing to stand up for the people who have invested and worked hard and are the backbone of our city? Why are the opponents of this bill not willing to speak up for those who would, if given the assistance they need to remain in the city, continue to help fund the very programs that are needed for the less fortunate?

In a city as prosperous as ours, we can undoubtedly afford to invest in our middle class; it is simply a matter of political will.

No one is arguing that this legislation is a panacea for affordable housing or rising tax costs. Yes, renters are feeling the same financial pressure as homeowners. The District has responded by investing hundreds of millions of dollars to fund the creation and preservation of affordable rental housing, which I wholeheartedly support. We can and should do more for renters. And we can and should look at increasing benefits through programs such as Schedule H. However, we ignore the plight of homeowners who cannot qualify for these programs at our own peril.

The District must decide if we are to have a government that responds to the needs of all our residents or one that shuns the concerns of our middle class.

After initially passing its committee vote, this legislation was referred back to committee because of lack of support. Since then, I have heard from hundreds of Washingtonians who agree that middle-class families and homeowners across the District deserve a break. For them, I will continue to advocate passage of the Homestead Exemption Increase Act of 2019.

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