Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Affordable housing and the bond

There was a joint governmental entities meeting last night that included county, school board, and city officials from Johnson County. The first topic on the agenda was affordable housing. I wanted to attend the meeting but could not. Here’s what I would have liked to say.

When I’ve written about why I don’t support the district’s bond proposal, I’ve focused mostly on my concerns about the specifics of the plan, and in particular the capacity expansions. I haven’t focused much on the proposal’s effect on the tax burden. That’s largely because I don’t view political issues from an anti-tax perspective; in general, I’d like to see more (and more progressive) taxation to support a higher level of social services, including education. It’s also true that I’m personally fortunate enough that I can afford the increase in taxes that will result from the bond proposal.

Not everyone is as fortunate, though. And it’s important to remember that the bond proposal will be funded by property taxes, which are not a progressive form of taxation. (And if SAVE is extended, those projects may eventually be funded using sales tax revenues, which are even less progressive.)

Our district does have an affordable housing problem. Proponents of the bond want you to know that our tax rate is low compared to that of other big Iowa school districts, but they don’t linger on the fact that our assessed values are some of the highest. Many people have a hard time finding local housing options they can afford. And the politically feasible solutions are all incremental; there is no quick fix.

If the bond proposal confined itself to demonstrable needs—for example, renovations to our older buildings, accessibility upgrades, and new capacity where it’s urgently needed—it would be easier to conclude that the benefits outweigh the incremental effect of making housing less affordable. (The effect would also be smaller.) But the worthy parts of the plan have been bundled with a set of capacity expansions that, according to the district’s own data, result in building 1,896 more seats than our enrollment projections show a need for even ten years from now—to the point where the price tag of the bond reached $191 million plus transaction costs and interest, which we’re told is the biggest bond proposal by far in Iowa’s history.

In response to that argument, bond proponents have argued that our enrollment projections are probably underpredicting growth. I agree that they almost certainly underpredict growth in some areas (mainly Coralville), though most of the excess seats are not in those areas. I also agree that enrollment projections seven or ten years out are not reliable. But saying “Don’t worry, our data is probably wrong!” is not a great argument for enacting a $191 million plan that includes capacity expansions that are seven years out on the timeline. It’s an argument for limiting the bond to first two or three years of projects and then re-assessing needs.

Addressing the problem of affordable housing doesn’t mean never supporting any tax increases or bond proposals. But it should at the very least mean taking seriously the need to justify each element of any major spending plan, especially one that will be paid for through property taxes. I don’t see how we’ve met that standard with this proposal.


amy said...

Again, thank you.

I'm actually a little surprised this issue hasn't come up in County Dem circles, but obviously a stiff tax increase makes a bad situation worse for people just hanging on around here. It also makes it worse for anyone who's renting. COGS was fighting for bigger pay increases to cope with the skyrocketing cost of rental housing in the IC area, especially now that Hawkeye Apts are gone and have been replaced by $1200/mo apartments. Now, of course, much of COGS' ability to bargain is dead. Others have pointed out the bind people on fixed incomes are in.

I know several people involved with the Yes campaign, and I know they're good people who want to support the schools and just want to believe it'll all come out well. But I will say I'm surprised at how little thought they're giving, publicly, anyway, to questions of how much this could wind up running per $100K, and how much will get passed along to renters and low-fixed-income people, about whom they're normally concerned. I wonder sometimes if they're taking into account the fact that if we get ourselves into trouble here accidentally, we drag all those people along into it, willy-nilly, at which point feeling sorry will not solve their problems. Some idea of just how much this bond could cost them seems like an..I don't know, neighborly thing to look into.

amy said...

Well, I see what the Yes talking point is meant to be, from Rod's response to you:

"But it is not true. When taxes went up, rents went up. When taxes went down, rents went up. It had nothing to do with taxes."

I'm trying to think of a way in which this is not disingenuous, not a break with ordinary Dem concerns for poor people.

The only parallel I can find is in min-wage arguments, in which conservatives say that raising min wage will kill jobs. It doesn't, of course. But it also doesn't do what pro-raise people say it'll do, which is that it'll take profit from plutes. They don't make less profit. They try as best they can to fold the increase in wages into prices of goods and services.

I get the propaganda appeal of an argument that says "greedy people will always charge as much as they can anyway", but it doesn't connect to reality. End of the day, for most people in business, the question is about margin, not price. If you attack margin, they will do their best to get it back -- whether through tax breaks that other people pay for (maybe through regressive sales taxes), sweetheart deals with entities borrowing $200M for construction projects, or shrugging and saying, "gotta raise the rent, sorry Charley."

In any case -- it looks like the intent is to ignore the effect on the poor/struggling of large bond-related tax increases not by pretending the increases won't exist, but by pretending that they won't matter.

That's...remarkably dishonest. And if I were in the position I was in a few years back, I'd be a whole lot louder about that, asking Rod how he intended to help me get my suddenly-expanded mortgage paid each month.

Here's something that would encourage me to support this: if, as part of the bond measure, ICCSD families with incomes over, say, $150K were taxed specially to guarantee a ceiling on what ICCSD families with incomes under, say, $50K could wind up paying for the bond, whether that came in the form of rent subsidies, property tax ceilings, or some other advanceable rebate. For the entire term of the bond payoff. If the voters were willing to approve that as part of the bond language, I would be more favorably inclined.