Greek housing bail flails in Congress

Some students are pushing a bill to make certain housing donations tax deductible.

by Anne Millerbernd

For over a decade, Congress has mulled over, but never passed a bill providing financial incentive for donations to certain types of university housing, including fraternity and sorority houses.

Now, students and alumni from the University of Minnesota and across the country are preparing for a trip to Washington, D.C., later this month to lobby for the measure, called the Collegiate Housing Infrastructure Act, which would amend Internal Revenue Service code so donations to not-for-profit housing would be tax-deductible.

The bill could particularly impact greek organizations nationwide, and at the University because of the ongoing need for housing renovations. The Minnesota Student Association passed a resolution Tuesday supporting the measure, and MSA President Mike Schmit, who is a member of Beta Theta Pi, said that the student government’s support may hold some weight when students and alumni go to lobby in Washington.

“Ideally, it’ll help them in their cause,” he said, citing the high number of students MSA represents.

Computer science senior Greg Dryke brought the bill to MSA’s attention. The Delta Chi member is one of about 40 students from around the country who is planning to lobby for the bill.

Students and alumni have traveled to the nation’s capital annually to garner enough co-sponsors for the bill to pass.

But even when the bill gained 236 co-sponsors in 2009, it didn’t get past the House Committee on Ways and Means, where it’s been referred and fizzled out each time it’s been introduced. Just 69 co-sponsors have signed onto the measure’s most recent introduction.

Dryke said that the housing bill hasn’t passed because it’s often attached to other measures that lawmakers vote down.

A spokesperson for a Republican Congressman close to the bill said that the bill’s chances of passing this time are unclear, but it will need strong support from lawmakers.

A key issue with the bill is the money attached to it, Dryke said. Because the bill would make donations more appealing, they would increase in number — as would federal tax breaks.

These tax breaks would ultimately total $148 million over the next decade, according to a House committee report that also estimated that the national greek community needs more than $1 billion in housing improvements.

At the University, it’s estimated that $13-20 million is needed to ensure greek housing is safe, code compliant and up to other modern housing standards, according to the Greek Community Strategic Task Force Report.

Director of the Office for Fraternity and Sorority Life Matt Levine said in a March interview that the estimate is modest considering the scope of renovations that campus houses need.

Though all sororities were required to install fire suppression systems in their houses, Dryke said, just a few fraternities have made the pricey renovation.

The new University sorority chapter Chi Omega is looking to purchase a house or build one from the ground up. Lorna Fox, a chapter alumna and Chi Omega’s local housing corporation president,  said the federal bill would likely encourage vital donations to make that type of move a reality.

Much of the chapter’s funding comes from the estates of alumnae who have passed on, Fox said, and if the act were to pass, it would likely also encourage alumnae to donate before they pass away.

“We’re very lucky that people are still pretty generous and do donate money to us,” she said. “But there isn’t any tax benefit for them and … a lot of people make their donations based on some of those decisions.”