Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Lots of small changes—but one big thing stays the same.
Conservatives in Congress rallied behind a final tax reform bill on Friday, moving one step closer to sweeping legislation that will redefine the Republican Party and remake finance in America. Several hold-outs in the GOP, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, dropped their opposition to the bill as it proceeded through the conference committee, leaving few obstacles in its way. A vote on the most significant tax reform push in 30 years could happen as soon as Monday.
While the bill appeared to unify Republicans, they nevertheless only revealed its contents publicly on Friday evening, perhaps in deference to the bill’s historic unpopularity. In addition to providing benefits to the wealthiest households (including Republicans in Congress), the first legislative achievement of the Trump administration lowers corporate tax rates substantially, a shift in tax priority that will result in a sting felt by many.
Several provisions from the House and Senate versions of the bill that most adversely affected local governments fell away in the final conference. Overall, the final bill looks better than some of the nightmarish scenarios teased in the draft bills, but it’s still likely to ramp up inequality while undermining the resources for solving inequality. Here’s a rundown of the major changes, and how they might affect you and your community.
The tax bill preserves financing for infrastructure, but it undercuts affordable housing
An earlier draft of the bill targeted the tax status of private-activity bonds and housing tax credits, which developers use to build both infrastructure and most new affordable housing across the country. The final tax bill makes no changes to private-activity bonds—good news for infrastructure and many other kinds of development. The bill also keeps Low Income Housing Tax Credits the way they are. Changes in the House bill might have cut affordable-housing production by nearly 900,000 units over the next decade.
But a lower corporate tax rate going forward makes housing tax credits less valuable to investors, which could result in a drop in the production of affordable housing by as much as 15 percent.
Credits for wind, solar, and housing are saved—but there’s a catch
Two of the bill’s provisions, the corporate alternative minimum tax and the brand new Base Erosion Anti-abuse Tax, could have wiped out the credits that drive investment in wind and solar energy and affordable housing, as CityLab explained in greater depth here.
If the corporate AMT were not repealed—or if the BEAT were installed without any exemptions—most companies would wind up paying the AMT or BEAT. Under this dispensation, they would not be buying credits for affordable housing and solar investments, or research and development.
Instead, the final bill repeals the corporate AMT. With respect to the new BEAT established by the bill, it exempts R&D credits entirely. For other credits, it exempts 80 percent of the credit value against BEAT liability. So 80 percent of LIHTCs, New Markets Tax Credits, Historic Tax Credits, and others can be taken against BEAT, while the rest of the value carries forward.
It’s unclear whether the exemption is enough to beat the BEAT.
“There has been lots of concern whether this compromise is good enough to make sure that investors hit by that can remain in the market,” says Peter Lawrence, director of public policy and government relations for Novogradac and Company. “That’s to be determined.”
A cap for state and local tax deductions means a hike for liberals
Taxpayers who live in places with high state or local property, sales, and income taxes can currently deduct those taxes through the state and local tax deduction. SALT is a target for congressional Republicans, since it mostly benefits people who live in high-tax states, such as California and New York. Well-off, urban, liberal taxpayers will take a hit from the cap on the SALT deduction. So will their communities, since it will be harder for them to raise revenue when taxpayers who were previously enjoying a (regressive) subsidy feel instead like they’ve been dealt a tax hike.
The fact that this deduction is capped, not eliminated, may not make much difference for affected parties. Under the new dispensation, taxpayers can either deduct up to $10,000 in state and local income plus property taxes or deduct up to $10,000 in state and local property and sales taxes. The compromise won’t make much of a difference either way.
Lower rates for (wealthy) architects
Engineers and architects won a special exemption in the tax bill. As The Wall Street Journal notes, these professions will be exempted from the definition of service businesses, meaning they will be taxed more like manufacturers than like lawyers. Architects and engineers who operate as pass-through entities (which might include partnerships, sole proprietorships, and other small businesses) can get a full 20 percent deduction—if these business owners make more than $157,500 of individual income per year.
However, the median pay for architects is almost exactly half that (while engineers make a bit more). It’s not clear how many architects and engineers will take advantage of this exemption, but many work as small businesses and will be eligible for the pass-through classification.
Artists can keep their subsidized pads
An amendment that Senator Pat Roberts submitted with the Senate version of the bill changed a provision that made artists’ housing ineligible for housing tax credits. This amendment, which would have forbid developers from using housing credits to build affordable housing with a preference for artists, was dropped from the final bill.
Introducing the “Investing in Opportunity Act”
One of the few new increases for community development established by the tax bill is an incentive to invest private capital in low-income communities. The final tax bill incorporates another bill called the Investing in Opportunity Act, which enables states to establish “opportunity zones” where investors are able to defer capital gains as long as they invest in existing or new businesses. The program is similar to the New Markets Tax Credit program and uses the same eligibility criteria for determining low-income opportunity zones.
“It’s a different form of investment, a different style,” Lawrence says. “The Investment in Opportunity Act is potentially a much larger scale, but a much shallower incentive, than the New Markets Tax Credit. There’s a limited amount of overall possibility, but for any one investment, you can provide a deeper financing incentive.”
Expect American inequality to get a lot worse
In highlighting how any specific policy might affect taxpayers, or how Congress may have made the legislation incrementally less destructive by dropping certain provisions, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees: The Republican tax bill leverages the future to pay dividends for the wealthiest takers in the present.
The tax bill being considered in Congress won’t lead CEOs to invest more. Instead, it would make our most pressing economic challenges worse. https://t.co/PrFgnBV329— Mike Bloomberg (@MikeBloomberg) December 15, 2017
So while Congress avoided some of the worst-possible outcomes with this bill with regard to affordable housing, municipal development, infrastructure, and transit, it still makes all these things harder to do. Lower corporate taxes will mean revenue shortfalls for city and state governments, especially if corporations take the savings and pay them out to shareholders instead of reinvesting them in jobs and infrastructure. In broad strokes, the Republican tax reform bill means that your city and state just got a budget cut.
This post has been updated.