WASHINGTON -- State and local housing officials hope to be batting 1.000 by the end of the year on legislative issues, but could end up more like .500.
They scored earlier this month when Congress appproved $1.5 billion in 1992 for the new housing affordability program known as HOME and temporarily waived a requirement that state and local governments kick in money to the program.
But the game isn't over yet.
Those officials are still wainting to see if Congress will extend the tax exemption for mortgage revenue bonds and the low-income housing tax credit beyond their scheduled Dec. 31 expiration date. So far, there has een little movement among lawmakers to draft tax legislation that would be the vehicle for continuing those tax breaks.
Proponents of the housing credit and mortgage bonds say they are heartened by the large number of lawmakers that have signed on in support of bills to extend the tax breaks. Legislation to continue the mortgage bond exemption, in fact, has a record number of co-sponsors in the House: 384 as of Oct. 11. The old record was 369, set last year. Meanwhile, 89 senators have announced support for mortgage bond legislation, up from 88 last year.
Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly, D-Conn., the main sponsor of the mortgage bond bill, "has effectively spread the message to her House colleagues that the MRB program is a valuable tool that the nation can't afford to lose if we are to continue to make home ownership a realistic goal for lower-income renters," Orest T. Dubno, the secretary of the National Council of State Housing Agencies, said in a statement. Mr. Dubno is also president of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority.
Legislation to extend the low-income housing credit has had close to the same level of support, with 291 co-sponsors in the House and 82 in the Senate.
Less Than 12 Weeks to Score
Though there are fewer than 12 weeks before those two tax breaks expire, a top official of the housing council said he was still optimistic that Congress will keep them from terminating.
"I don't remember a year, even at this point, when the conventional wisdom was that we would have a tax bill, but we always seem to get one," said John T. McEvoy, the council's executive director. "Archeologically, you'd have to say a bill still seems entirely possible."
John C. Murphy, the executive director of the Association of Local Housing Finance Agencies, said that while he expects an extension, there is little hope it will be for more than one year. "I'd like to think it would be a multiyear extension, but I don't think that's in the cards," he said.
When asked whether there may be a rush to market by mortgage bond issuers in the next few weeks as the termination date looms closer, Mr. Murphy said he was "beginning to hear that a little bit." He added, "clearly agencies are thinking that way."
Gaining an extension before the year is particularly urgent, because next year tax legislation may again be stalled until the end of the year, or may not be passed at all Mr. McEvoy said.
"It's so important to get a bill this year," because "the potential for a bill not passing next year is very, very strong, "Mr. McEvoy said.
If there is no extension this year, "There's no question in my mind that a good number of states will have to start shutting down their [mortgage revenue bond] programs well before" a bill is passed next year, Mr. McEvoy said. "Rarely is a [tax] bill enacted early in the year."
For the low-income housing tax credit a lapse in authority to allocate the credit would also credate problems.
"Any disruption in the program leads to a dismantling of the pipeline," Mr. McEvoy said. "If you delay the [housing] tax credit for a matter of months, it will be much longer than that time before you make up the production."
Chief among the obstacles to a bill in 1992 is the political infighting expected during a presidential election year. Democrats in Congress have said they may push for a "tax fairness" bill that would give tax breaks to the middle class and increase taxes on the rich. But President Bush has pledged to reject any tax increase.
The danger for extensions of expiring provisions is that they "may well be wrapped into a tax fairness bill the President may have to veto," Mr. McEvoy said.
But along with the risks, there may also be opportunities next year for supporters of mortgage bonds and the low-income credit, Mr. Murphy said. Congress and the White House could strike a deal in which a tax fairness bill includes a cut in the rate of taxation on capital gains, which is strongly supported by the President.
If Congress does draft such a bill it would be large enough that "I'd like to think a multiyear extension [of mortgage bonds and the housing credit] would be possible," Mr. Murphy said.
HOME Program a Winner
On the HOME program, housing lobbyists have already won their battle for 1991, though they say more fights loom in 1992.
Lobbyists will be pushing for at least the same level of funding in 1993 as the $1.5 billion program is slated to receive in 1992. They may, in fact, push for the $2 billion they had wanted for 1992, reasoning that there may be more money to go around in 1993 if there are deep cuts next year in defense spending as some in Congress have been predicting.
"Perhaps we can justify increasing the funding level," Mr. Murphy said. "Why shouldn't housing get a claim in freed-up resources?"
Enacted in 1990, the HOME program -- officially known as the National Affordable Housing Act -- requires the federal government to offer matching funds to financial contributions that state and local governments make to rental housing and home ownership programs for low-income people.
After Congress makes an annual appropriation of federal funds for HOME each year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development will distribute 60% of the total to localities and 40% to states. The smallest allocations will be $500,000, and each state will receive at least $3 million.
For each dollar spent by a participating state or locality on new construction, the federal government will provide $2; for each dollar spent on substantial rehabilitation of existing units, the federal match will be $3; for each dollar spent on tenant-based rental assistance, the federal match will be $4.
But Congress inserted a provision in this year's HUD appropriations bill that puts those matching provisins on hold for one year and allows states and localities to receive federal funds without making their own contributions. The waiver was specifically designed to help many state and local governments strapped for funds as a result of the recession.
There's Always Next Season
Housing lobbyists say they will be back on Capitol HIll next year, fighting not only for a substantial appropriation for the program, but also to urge Congress to change the matching requirements, which will become effective beginning in 1993.
HUD has said it would allow general obligation bonds to count toward the match, but housing industry officials have been pushing for HUD to make private-activity bonds and revenue bonds eligible as well.
"We would like to have it clear that revenue bonds which are repayable from the project are an allowable form of match," Mr. Mc-Evoy said.
Housing lobbyists believe HUD is being overly restrictive in viewing private-activity bonds as purely a federal subsidy and not as a financing commitment by a state orlocal government. When issuing such debt, they argue, the governmental unit is incurring liability. That risk offsets any federal subsidy implicit in the interest rate on the bonds.
Moreover, private-activity bonds are not permitted to be issued without an allocation under the state-by-state private-activity bond volume cap, which has been the greater of $50 per capita or $150 million per state each year since 1988. Allocating bond authority under the cap to housing bonds that would be issued for the HOME program is another way in which a state or local government makes a financial commitment to the program, lobbyists say.