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Affordable housing grows more difficult to find

July 31, 2005|By JAMES M. WOODARD

A growing problem for a large segment of today's families is finding an affordable home, either to buy or rent.

Teachers, police officers, firefighters, retail sales workers - a huge number of folks we depend on for providing a quality and safe lifestyle in our communities are having a tough time finding a residence they can afford.

Increasingly, they are forced to spend a disproportionate share of their incomes on housing, according to a study by the National Association of Home Builders. The study revealed that the vast majority of rental apartments (about 92 percent) are beyond the reach of low- to moderate-income families. They must spend 30 percent or more of their income on rent.

The study also noted that in the few neighborhoods where workers could afford to rent, the housing was older and more likely to be vacant, suggesting there might be problems with construction quality.

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"We're trying to focus attention on the millions of working people who perform valuable jobs in their communities, but who are too often unable to afford to live close to where they work," said Dave Wilson, NAHB president.

"This is a problem for millions of teachers, police officer, firefighters and other public servants."

The study is primarily based on analysis of the most recent U.S. census data for wage earners in the census-defined categories of retail salespersons. The association used the workers' median earnings to calculate the share of rental units they could afford in the nation's largest 25 metro areas.

Of the 21,000 Census tracts that comprise the top 25 metro areas, the study identified only 1,000 tracts in which at least half the rental stock would be affordable to a household supported by a retail sales worker spending 30 percent or less of their monthly salary on rent.

In the majority of metro areas, fewer than 8 percent of all census tracts were considered affordable for these families. In some areas, like San Diego, not a single census tract could be classified as affordable. The study classified a unit as affordable if its gross rent does not exceed 30 percent of household income, a standard often applied in government housing programs.

Looking at ways to increase access to housing for working families, the association suggests smart growth and balanced land use policies that take into account the ongoing demand for housing created by a growing economy and population.

Too often, local governments exclude affordable housing through large-lot zoning, urban growth boundaries or other slow-growth mandates that constrain the supply of land and drive up costs, the association pointed out.

Q: How much capital gains tax must be paid when selling a home?

A: Everyone looks for a really good tax break - not just in April but throughout the year. The best of all breaks is right there in your home sweet home.

Most homeowners know their mortgage interest and property tax payments are tax deductible. But a much bigger break is available when you sell your home. Most home sellers today will be free from paying any capital gains tax on their home sale.

"Most people are not going to have a tax obligation unless their gain is huge," said Bob Trinz, senior tax analyst for RIA, a tax information and software firm.

Before 1997, the only way you could avoid paying taxes on your home sale profit was to use the money to buy another more expensive house within two years. Sellers from age 55 had another option. They could take a once-per-lifetime tax exemption of up to $125,000 in profits.

Since the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 became law, the home-sale tax burden eased for millions of homeowners. The rollover of once-in-a-lifetime options were replaced with the current per-sale exclusion amounts.

"There is some logic to this law change because most people under the prior rules didn't recognize a taxable gain because they rolled it over into another home," Trinz said. "The change essentially makes it easier to dispose of a person's home." As it now stands, you as a homeowner can take tax-free profits of up to $250,000 if you are a single taxpayer - $500,000 if it is co-owned by a spouse.

To qualify, the sold house must have been your principal residence for at least two of the past five years. It does not apply to a second home or a house you own strictly as an investment. However, it's possible to turn an investment home into a primary residence (in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service) by living in it for at least two years.

"Generally, if you owned and used the home as your main residence for periods totaling at least two years within five years ending on the date of its sale, you're eligible for the exclusion," Trinz pointed out.

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