A General Assembly subcommittee is giving well-deserved scrutiny to Virginia’s tax credits for rehabilitating historic properties.
That program, which has provided more than $1 billion in tax credits since its inception in 1997, is widely credited with revitalizing older neighborhoods across Virginia, particularly in the City of Richmond with its wealth of historic properties. However, as the state grapples with a $1.5 billion revenue gap in the current two-year budget, it is encouraging to see lawmakers employ economic thinking for a change.
“It is really hard for us to make a good business decision here when we don’t know what kind of return we are getting on our money,” said Del. Jimmie Massie, R-Henrico, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “If we are getting a 10 to 15 percent return, that is one thing. If we are getting 5 percent, that’s another.”
Virginia allows developers to claim credits of 25 percent of eligible expenses on renovations of certified historic structures, explains the T-D. With a federal historic tax credit of 20 percent, developers can claim total credits of 45 percent. They can use the credits against their own tax liabilities or syndicate the credits for investors.
According to a 2014 study by the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis at Virginia Commonwealth University, 2,375 projects tapping tax credits generated almost $4 billion in economic activity in the state between 1997 and 2013. A survey of developers indicated that 85% would not have made their investment without the credits.
The Richmond regions has benefited disproportionately from the credit. About 1,185 projects generated about $2 billion in expenditures. However, the program also has defenders from other cities, such as Staunton, which has seen a downtown renaissance in recent years.
Bacon’s bottom line: No question, the tax credit has been a boon to urban-core economies. I’m a big fan of restoring and rehabilitating historic buildings. (I restored two ante-bellum houses in Church Hill.) I greatly prefer historic architectural styles to modern motifs.
But saying that developers would not have undertaken historic renovations without the tax credit is not saying that they would have done nothing. Presumably, those developers would not have stayed idle. What the VCU study could not measure is what projects they would have undertaken in the absence of the credits. Thus, while stating that every $1 in tax credits generated $4 in construction activity sounds impressive, it is a meaningless metric of net economic impact.
I see historic tax credits as analogous to conservation tax credits. A decade ago, conservation tax credits were being handed out indiscriminately, sometimes going to properties of dubious conservation value. The General Assembly cracked down, imposing a $100 million cap. Likewise, historic tax credits may have gone to development projects of dubious value. I recall hearing that developers game the system by preserving a small historic structure, or part of a structure like a wall, and incorporating it into a larger project while pocketing credits for the full amount. (Sorry, I don’t have time this morning to document such instances for this blog post.)
The tax credits represent a drain on the state treasury. It’s about time the General Assembly started asking tough questions of the program. I am particularly concerned how much “gaming” the system goes on. Tightening up the requirements might be in order. Further, lawmakers might well consider a yearly cap, as the state does with conservation easements. As much as I personally love historic renovations, preserving the integrity of the public fisc is the greater good.There are currently 2 comments highlighted: 125574, 125589.