This Pittsburgh City Councilman wants student loan relief for homebuyers

Corey O’Connor’s plan: Goodbye student loan payments, hello mortgage.

Homes on Western Avenue

Homes on Western Avenue

Paul McCarthy / Flickr
MJ Slaby

What if instead of a monthly student loan payment — about $350 for borrowers in their 20s — you could put that money toward mortgage payments? Or something else entirely while being a homeowner?

It’s an idea that council member Corey O’Connor of District 5 wants the state to explore and adopt.

A program to do away with at least a portion of student loans for homebuyers could encourage college graduates to stay in Pittsburgh, O’Connor said. Plus, the city could be more attractive to those weighing job offers and out-of-state moves.

O’Connor plans to introduce a will of council today that encourages state officials “to develop and administer a program wherein the Commonwealth repays a portion” of a person’s student loan debt when financing a home through the “Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency and commits to live there for a set amount of time,” per a draft of the document given to The Incline on Monday.

One of the barriers that prevents homeownership is student loan debt, O’Connor said. For college graduates, those without debt are more likely to buy a house than their peers who are making student loan payments, per a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported by the Wall Street Journal. Student loans make it harder to save for a down payment and to qualify for a mortgage.

O’Connor said he and staffers were talking about ways to lessen the burden of student loans when they learned about the Maryland SmartBuy program (more on that later). Other states like Ohio and New York have similar programs, per the WSJ. Inspired by the Maryland program, O’Connor and his staff knew a similar program in Pennsylvania would need to be at the state level.

So the will of council is a way to show Pittsburgh’s support, and if it passes, O’Connor said he hopes to go to Harrisburg and talk with those in Gov. Tom Wolf’s office as well as state lawmakers. He said he’s already talked to Wolf and others in his office about the idea and they showed interest. (Wolf’s office didn’t return a request for comment.)

The document from O’Connor’s office keeps the program basic for now. Many details — like how long a buyer is required to live in the house and what happens if they move early — would need to be decided at the state level, O’Connor said.

Here’s how it would work:

  • To qualify, a homebuyer would have at least $1,000 in federal or state student loans and would need to have a mortgage from a public institution. There wouldn’t be age or graduation year requirements.
  • As soon as the buyer purchases the house, they stop making student loan payments and start making mortgage payments. Over time, the state would waive student loan debt up to 15 percent of the cost of the house.
  • If the student loan debt is more than that amount, the homeowner would pay the difference after their house is paid off.

For example, if the house cost $200,000, then $30,000 in student loan debt would be absolved. If the buyer had more than $30,000 in student loans, they would pay the remaining amount later.

O’Connor said he’d want to consider houses in any town or city in the state. A program like this could especially help cities and college towns that are looking at their population and their housing stock and want to keep recent graduates there, he said.

The Maryland SmartBuy program is a little more strict, according to O’Connor. There, the houses are limited to foreclosed properties owned by the state, per a program fact sheet. Plus, another difference from O’Connor’s proposal is that Maryland participants must pay remaining student debt balance at the start.

Since the Maryland program began in 2016, 24 homes were purchased or are in the process of being purchased, Craig Renner, special project administrator for Maryland SmartBuy, told The Incline. Due to the high interest, the state is looking at expanding the program beyond houses owned by the state. (Meet the first couple to use the program.)

Lindsay Page, assistant professor of research methodology at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education, said she thinks the program idea is cool, but she worries about the main goal — is the goal neighborhood revitalization, lessening student debt in a targeted way or something else?

“What problem is this solving?” she asked.

Plus, Page added that people who are exposed to at least some higher education are already more likely to own a home than those without postsecondary experience. So she said the program would need to make sure it doesn’t widen the equity gap.

“That’s something we need to think about,” she said.

If college graduates become homeowners, they become more invested in the community and might consider staying longer, O’Connor said. Plus, he said as homeowners, they would provide tax revenue to the state and help property values increase. Without student loan payments, he said homeowners would have more money to spend in the local economy too.

Yes, the state would be taking on debt from not having that student loan money, O’Connor said. But he argued that the additional revenue the state wouldn’t otherwise have would balance it out.

In Maryland, Renner said the houses are selling for 95 percent of their appraised value, a higher price than usual for foreclosed homes. “The house becomes an asset, not a drain on the state,” he said.

And it’s an idea that more and more people are noticing, Renner said, adding he’s getting calls about SmartBuy all the time.

“You’re the second state today.”