A year ago, my wife and I bought a home. We shared pictures on Facebook, invited friends and family over to celebrate, were welcomed to our new community by the neighbors and generally received a lot of praise and congratulations. It was a proud moment but a confusing moment too. Up until buying our home, we had not lived in subsidized housing. We had rented. But, now, as a homeowner, we were rewarded by the government as they allowed us to lower our tax bill by deducting the money we paid in mortgage interest. We had never been given this assistance before.
And, the reason this has come into my memory is because the Baltimore County Council is poised to consider the HOME Act. The act seeks to end housing discrimination by preventing landlords from rejecting tenants based on the tenant’s source of income. Specifically, a tenant planning to use a housing voucher provided by the government cannot be rejected because they are using said voucher.
I have listened to critics of the act. Much of their irritation with the law stems from a belief that people who benefit from housing subsidies are less responsible and more likely to be liabilities for landlords. This attitude is entirely at odds with the experience my wife and I had as homeowners. We went from being renters receiving zero public housing assistance to homeowners receiving assistance, and we received nothing but good words. No one demeaned us. We haven’t been stigmatized or labeled. Not one person suggested we would be a scourge on the community. A year after closing, we haven’t even had a whiff of disdain for our being recipients of government aid. In fact, it seems as though we have fulfilled the American Dream.
My critics point out that my tax deduction is different than a subsidy or voucher, which is true in a sense; however, the result is the same. By filing the tax deduction, people feel like they are not getting any assistance. They are only keeping what is rightly theirs. The government could cut homeowners a check for the value of our mortgage interest. And I wish they would. It would change the dynamic of the benefit. Imagine receiving a check in the mail from the government just for being a homeowner. The feeling of the government issued check being deposited in your account would feel like a handout. It would rightly be yours under the law, but it probably wouldn’t feel as easy to take. No one wants to take a handout they don’t need. No one.
And, that’s the thing. My family takes so many handouts. Our health insurance premiums are totally sheltered from taxation. When we use our flexible spending account to pay for pre-school and doctor visits, we reap a tax break that, again, we don’t need. And when we squirrel away extra income in 403(b), or IRAs, or 529s, the government helps us out. We take advantage of all of these government goodies while avoiding the label of “moocher” or “freeloader.” Again, if we set up all those accounts and were sent a check in return, we’d feel like we were taking from our community. But, the way it is we get to feel like we’re just keeping what is rightly ours.
Many will scoff and say that anyone could use all of those programs, or that we’ve earned those benefits. If by earning these benefits people mean to say we worked hard, then I agree, and, yes, anyone can use these programs. But, in reality, only those who have discretionary income can use them. If you are pinching every penny to make your rent payment while leaving enough for groceries, you aren’t able to duck your tax obligations by funding an IRA or a 529.
But, should our political and economic system function in such a way that allows the prosperous to be rewarded with assistance from the state? Meanwhile, our fellow citizens who have lived and struggled through poverty and other challenges are told to work harder. It seems like a system that would encourage massive disparities in wealth, which is exactly what we have.
So here we are with the HOME Act. Be against it if you want. But, if you’re against it because you think voucher recipients are irresponsible freeloaders, be sure to ask yourself about your freeloading ways too.
Adam Sutton (email@example.com) is a Baltimore County Public School teacher and a writer.