Anyone who is concerned about the country’s growing inequality crisis should be pushing for reform of the feature of the U.S. tax code known as the mortgage interest deduction. Not only does this wasteful tax subsidy primarily benefit the richest Americans, it also costs the U.S. Treasury between $70 and $100 billion annually in revenue, making it the third largest deduction on the books.
National opinion polls indicate that between 60 and 90 percent of Americans support the mortgage interest deduction (MID), which allows taxpayers to deduct interest on $1.1 million in mortgages on primary residences, vacation homes and even yachts. And yet because of the way this tax subsidy is structured most U.S. homeowners receive very little if any benefit from it. Indeed, in its current form, the MID’s biggest beneficiaries are the real estate industry and its wealthiest customers—U.S. homeowners who have gross adjusted gross incomes of more than $100,000, and who in 2012 consumed a whopping 77 percent of the benefits. Homeowners from the top two percent of American taxpayers who earn more than $200,000 (or married couples who earn more than $250,000) annually fared the best: They gobbled up 35 percent of the subsidy.
The inequities and inefficiencies inherent in the MID are obvious to leaders of a wide range of groups advocating for its overhaul or elimination.
“What we are doing is over-subsidizing homeownership for higher income people, which is a choice that we have made,” says Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), “but we are also at the same time making a choice to horribly underfund housing subsidies for the poorest people in this country whose housing needs are getting more and more extreme.”
“It is not the homeowners or the consumers who are getting a lot of these [MID] benefits,” says Wayne Brough, chief economist at the Tea Party-affiliated FreedomWorks, which advocates for getting rid of the MID altogether in favor of a flat tax. ”It is the banks that get mortgage interest paid [by the government] and you have the homebuilders who sell bigger homes---all of this has distortionary impacts on the markets that are hard to justify.”
Making inequality a built-in feature in many American cities and suburbs appears to be the interest deduction's most profound effect. Studies indicate that this bedrock of U.S. tax policy has pumped up housing prices by 10 to 15 percent in certain real estate markets. Its use also is linked to the proliferation of McMansions and out-of-scale apartments in high-income areas throughout the country. In a 2012 paper published in the Journal of Housing Economics, Marquette University economics professor Andrew Hanson estimated that homes bought by owners who use the MID and other housing tax subsidies in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area are, on average, 1,424 square feet larger than homes purchased without it. And in the New York City, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles metropolitan regions, he estimates that housing tax subsidies are tied to the purchase of homes that average in size to more than 800 square feet larger than those purchased without them. Basically, the MID encourages affluent homeowners to buy more extravagant homes than they otherwise would. There also is a grossly unequal distribution of the MID’s benefits between Red States and Blue States: The ten largest per-capita beneficiary states typically vote Democratic.
But what makes overhaul of this tax subsidy especially urgent is the current nationwide housing crisis in the United States, where 76 percent of the 19 million people who qualify for housing assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cannot obtain it because not enough federal funds have been made available to help them. The $70 billion to $100 billion that this country annually sacrifices for the MID dwarfs HUD’s $46 billion budget, the primary means of housing assistance for moderate and low-income people.
There is no shortage of proposals to reform the MID; these include plans from President George W. Bush’s 2005 Tax Reform Panel of Federal Tax Reform, President Barack Obama’s bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and the 2013 Congressional Budget Office’s Options for Reducing the Deficit report. Some of the proposed overhauls would save the government billions of dollars in foregone tax revenue by imposing caps on the amount of mortgage interest that can be written off a homeowner’s bill, making home equity lines of credit ineligible and limiting the tax deductibility of mortgage interest to primary residences. Many of the proposals also call for converting the MID from a deduction tied to a homeowner’s marginal tax rate to a tax credit, which would greatly increase the number of low- and moderate-income people who benefit because they would now get a dollar-for-dollar reduction regardless of their tax bracket.
One of the most progressive plans is from the NLIHC, and forms the basis of proposed legislation by U.S. Representative Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota. It calls for reducing the size of the mortgage on which interest can be deducted from the current $1 million limit to $500,000, and would also convert the MID to a 15 percent non-refundable tax credit. The NLIHC estimates that its proposal would the increase the number of homeowners who get a tax break for homeownership from 39 million to 55 million and generate $200 billion in new tax revenue over the next ten years. Further, the organization estimates that 99 percent of homeowners that would be newly eligible for their proposed tax credit would be from the very group currently getting shortchanged by the MID: households with incomes of less than $100,000.
The different political factions advocating for MID reform, of course, have different agendas. Under the Republican-dominated House Ways and Means Committee’s proposed Tax Reform Act of 2014, the projected savings from reforming the MID would be used to reduce overall tax rates. In contrast, the proposal from Ellison and the NLIHC calls for using the projected savings to help fund the National Housing Trust Fund, which provides funding for the building and renovation of rental housing for low and very low income people.
So what is standing in the way of reforms that would provide more housing assistance for more Americans, provide a more equitable distribution of tax revenue, and save the federal government billions of dollars? The answer is the powerful special interest groups representing businesses that profit from serious inefficiencies in our economy. These “rent seekers” include the Mortgage Bankers Association, the National Home Builders Association and the National Association of Realtors, all of which make bigger profits on sales of larger more expensive homes than they do on smaller ones.
“You can see why Realtors would be opposed to a reform of the Mortgage Interest Deduction,” says Jason Fichtner, senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, and co-author of a recent paper on the MID. “They would have to sell more houses to make for up the loss in commission.”
The real estate industry has been so successful lobbying and spreading myths that the MID often is referred to as the “Third Rail” of American politics. Among organizations that lobby Congress, spending by the Realtors' association is second only to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce this year. In addition, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) also operates the largest political action committee in the country.
In 2012, with tax reform looming on Congress’s agenda, NAR president Gary Thomas announced that he had secured 183 bipartisan cosponsors for a resolution that supportD preserving the MID. “If you are looking at why Congress has such a positive feeling for the Mortgage Interest Deduction,” says Russ Choma, a spokesperson for the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, it is because “the National Association of Realtors, when it comes to giving out money in Washington, is one of the biggest deals in town...they basically have the biggest influence operation.”
Many Americans still buy the myth that the MID increases homeownership. However, the reality is that the MID actually isn’t a deciding factor for most people trying to decide between purchasing a home versus renting one. Indeed, for the vast majority of American homeowners earning under $100,000, the tax deduction potentially available from the current MID does not outweigh the savings they can realize from taking the standard deduction ($6,200 for individuals and $12,400 for married couples) on their tax returns. Even in cases where it does make economic sense for moderate-income homeowners earning $50,000 to $100,000 to file for the MID, the dollar benefits they are eligible for are negligible compared to the windfalls available to high income households whose average tax benefit from the subsidy is close to nine times greater.
Another myth is that reforming the MID would roil housing markets and destroy trillions of dollars in wealth. However, many economists believe that in today’s low interest environment the potential effect on housing prices would be relatively modest and limited to high-end homes in areas that enjoy inflated values thanks to the use of the MID. In addition, many of the proposed reforms call for phasing in the changes over periods of between five to nine years in order to keep prices stable in those markets. Further, reforming the MID actually is likely to improve housing prices in many neighborhoods that aren’t currently benefitting from the subsidy. According to a 2013 Urban Institute report, “proposals that shift the MID to benefit low- and moderate-income buyers could actually stabilize and increase prices of lower-priced homes, whose values continue to lag.” Clearly, elected officials and pundits have been doing a lousy job of explaining the need for reforming the MID. Sensible proposals for its overhaul have gone nowhere. It also is astounding that the American public appears to have such a poor grasp of who actually benefits from this subsidy. In an era when the gap between rich and poor is growing wider and an increasing number of Americans are struggling to afford housing, it is time for Congress to change this sorry state of affairs.