General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Affordable Housing & Community Development Law

Unique Coalition Provides a Voice for Affordable Housing

By John J. Ammann

When a local veterans’ group wanted to build a complex of affordable apartments for handicapped veterans in St. Louis County, Missouri, a local politician led the NIMBY charge. Hundreds of local residents responded by coming to a public hearing on the proposal to oppose it. Although some local housing advocacy groups did speak out with the developer in favor of the proposal, they were clearly outnumbered.

This all too typical scenario was not lost on a group called Professional Housing Resources, Inc. (PHRI). This tax-exempt nonprofit organization, which was started by lawyers active in the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis and operates in St. Louis and surrounding counties in Missouri and Illinois, volunteers legal services to nonprofit housing providers. More recently, PHRI has developed a significant list of not only lawyers but architects, accountants, homebuilders, and social workers to provide a coordinated system of free professional services to nonprofit housing developers. PHRI also presents educational sessions on a regular basis for the developers and volunteer professionals.

Even though PHRI has provided its services for several years to dozens of nonprofit developers, until now it has not considered taking positions on issues of public policy with regard to affordable housing. But the recent vocal opposition to the veterans’ group housing proposal and other similar situations led PHRI to consider a more active, public role in the affordable housing debate, which is too often dominated by local politics and residents opposed to housing for anyone perceived as not fitting into the neighborhood.

PHRI determined that a coalition of professionals and high profile housing providers could play a role when local housing issues and national policies were debated. The leaders of PHRI also believed that clout could be added to its voice by partnering with other credible forces. Discussions gave birth to the Voice for Affordable Housing.

A natural partner for the Voice for Affordable Housing was the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis (BAMSL), which is one of the most effective local bar associations in the country. Most of the attorney members of PHRI are members of the BAMSL. The leadership of BAMSL was instrumental in getting the Bar Association to become part of the coalition.

The third partner in the Voice for Affordable Housing is Habitat for Humanity St. Louis, the local chapter of the international nonprofit housing organization, perhaps best known for the volunteer efforts of former President Jimmy Carter. Although there are many professionally run nonprofit housing developers in the St. Louis area, few if any have the name recognition and respect of this religiously based organization. The president of the board of Habitat’s St. Louis chapter is an attorney who has volunteered with Habitat for many years, and the chapter has one of the largest groups of volunteer lawyer contingents of any Habitat chapter in the country.

The Voice for Affordable Housing is still in its infancy, and the participants are still crafting a system for bringing issues to the attention of the coalition and for formulating positions. Issues considered for action by the Voice are first researched thoroughly so that all sides may be presented in a position paper. The leadership of each partner in the Voice then debates the proposed position, and all three groups must concur before action can be taken. Such a system ensures that each of the three partners has debated the issue fully before lending its support to the Voice for Affordable Housing on the matter.

The first project undertaken by the Voice was to communicate its opposition to a bill in Congress that would severely limit the ability of disabled persons to live in group homes in residential areas. H.R. 3206 would also limit the ability of families to care for foster children. Because of the great need for group homes in St. Louis and just about everywhere else, the Voice for Affordable Housing accepted the challenge of taking a public stand on what can be a controversial topic. Its modest effort in this first endeavor included sending letters to the Missouri congressional delegation and to the leadership of the committee considering the bill.

At a recent continuing legal education event cosponsored by PHRI, BAMSL, and the Forum’s Missouri Chapter, a second issue was proposed for consideration by the Voice. A program on the Low Income Housing Tax Credit included a discussion of current proposals in Congress to raise the per capita tax credit cap to $1.75 and index it for inflation. The bill would greatly increase affordable housing production by increasing the dollar amount of tax credits available to investors. Board members of PHRI have drafted memos outlining the merits of the bill, but also presenting the views of those opposed to it.

Although these first two projects have involved legislation at the federal level, interest in them arose because of the impact of the proposed legislation at the local level. The organization also plans to take positions on strictly local housing issues soon. The Voice intends to expand its efforts beyond letter writing to include more public pronouncements on specific projects and issues, such as testimony at hearings and attendance at public hearings.

Although these groups have determined that they should play the role described here, they are conscious of their status as tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. Tax-exempt organizations under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, such as Habitat for Humanity and PHRI, are limited in the amount of lobbying activities they can conduct. The law requires that efforts to influence legislation may not represent a substantial part of the organization’s activities. The groups uniting to speak out on affordable housing issues will be engaging in this activity only sporadically. In light of the significant resources devoted by these organizations to their primary, nonlobbying purposes, they should not run afoul of the IRS limitations. Other groups considering speaking out on these issues should be cognizant of the limitations of federal law. On the other hand, the bar association, as a business league under section 501(c)(6) of the Internal Revenue Code does not have the same restrictions as a section 501(c)(3) organization, although there are restrictions on what lobbying expenses are deductible business expenses as related to membership dues.

Attorneys have a responsibility to speak out on issues of public concern. They can have an impact on the debate on affordable housing issues. The Voice for Affordable Housing is an example of the discharge of public trust by attorneys who must not betray the respect and credibility attached to our profession.

John J. Ammann is an assistant professor and director of the law clinic at Saint Louis University School of Law.

- This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 337 in the Journal of Affordable Housing & Community Development Law, Summer 1998 (7:4).

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