Home builders pull support of tax cuts over mortgage interest deduction

A group that may be viewed as generally in favor of fewer taxes – the National Association of Home Builders – is not happy that the mortgage interest deduction could disappear in the Trump tax cuts:

That’s because one day before, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) informed NAHB that he would not be including a homeownership tax credit as part of the new tax legislation, which will be released on Wednesday.

NAHB’s chief executive, Jerry Howard, had spent months working on this new tax provision with Brady’s aides, but House leaders wouldn’t allow its inclusion, Howard was told. The next day, Howard and other NAHB officials gathered on a conference call and debated what to do. They agreed unanimously — kill the bill…

The home builders are seen as among the most influential Washington corporate forces, not only because they have members everywhere but are often big fundraisers for politicians and have a close connection to the economy, development, hiring and economic growth.

They are incensed about proposed changes to tax law that, they believe, would eliminate the need for almost all Americans to itemize their tax deductions, an adjustment they think would nullify the need for middle-class Americans to deduct their mortgage interest from their taxes. They are also incensed that the bill would strip away the ability of Americans to deduct their state and local property taxes from their federal taxable income. Both these changes, NAHB argues, would raise the cost of buying and owning a home.

This part of the tax code has been debated in recent years (ranging from fiscal cliff issues to 2010 post-housing bubble discussions). And, more broadly, the United States is the only developed country that subsidizes mortgages in the ways that we do.

It is not a surprise that certain interest groups would oppose changes to the tax code that they perceive could affect their business. At the same time, any perceived effect on housing – not only a major part of the economy but also symbolically important as a marker of the middle-class lifestyle – is going to draw a lot of attention. And this area also involves the interests of fairly wealthy Americans:

But this national wealth-creation policy has several negative side effects. Since tax benefits are most useful for people with taxable income, U.S. wealth-creation policy is predominantly for people who already have wealth. These high-income households don’t consider their tax benefits to be a form of government policy at all. For example, 60 percent of people who claim the MID say they have never used any government program, ever. As a result, rich households can be skeptical of public-housing policies while benefiting from a $71 billion annual tax benefit which is, functionally, a public-housing policy for the rich. As Desmond writes, “a 15-story public housing tower and a mortgaged suburban home are both government-subsidized, but only one looks (and feels) that way.” In short, an asset-building, wealth-creation, or welfare policy that’s run through the tax code can hurt the overall push for more direct forms of welfare—like simply giving money to the poor…

But more generally, people need money to buy houses. The United States still lags almost every advanced economy in the amount of money transferred from the rich to the poor. One major reason is that the tax code has become a vehicle for incentivizing wealth-creation among households who already have the most wealth, even as the government has soured on policies that spend money directly on the poor. It’s hard to find a better exemplar of this sorry fact than the juxtaposition of America’s affordable housing crisis and the untouchable sanctity of the mortgage-interest deduction.

In other words, the interests of the NAHB are not necessarily with the Americans who most need housing but with those who can purchase more expensive new homes. Thus, the mortgage interest deduction is just another piece of evidence regarding a bifurcated American housing market.

National Association of Realtors commercial in support of tax incentives for homeowners

The National Association of Realtors is running a new television commercial supporting tax incentives for homeowners. Here is the money line toward the end of the advertisement:

The National Association of Realtors supports maintaining homeowner tax incentives, because they make homeownership more affordable for more families.

There had been talk in the last few years about getting rid of the mortgage interest deduction (see an example here during the fiscal cliff negotiations) but I haven’t heard anything more recently. Is the National Association of Realtors trying to get out in front of this possible issue?

It is interesting how the ad plays on some common themes of American homeownership such as the home as a castle and that kids should feel safe at home instead of having to worry about whether it is affordable. Who exactly is the evil dragon in this ad – banks? Government officials? Putting kids out in front here is a smart move – who wants to deny children a nice home that their parents own?

Mortgage interest deduction part of fiscal cliff negotiations

The negotiations regarding the fiscal cliff include the mortgage interest deduction:

Limits on a broad array of deductions could emerge in any budget deal. It is likely that any caps would be structured to aim at high-income households, and would diminish or end the mortgage tax break for many of those taxpayers…

Such a move would be fiercely opposed by the real estate industry. The industry has played a crucial role in defending the tax break, even as other countries with high homeownership have phased it out…

One of the reasons the mortgage tax break is so vulnerable is that both Democrats and Republicans have recently favored capping deductions, including both President Obama and the recent Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney…

Taken on it own, the deduction limit wouldn’t make a huge difference. But it can play an important role in a broad plan to cut the deficit, and shows a willingness to tackle once sacred cows. The tax numbers suggest it may not be hard to structure deduction limits in a way that leaves most middle-income households untouched.

This is not a new idea – people have been suggesting for a few years now (see here) that the mortgage interest deduction tends to help the wealthiest the most. Capping the deduction would still provide a benefit for less wealthy homeowners and boost the housing market. Yes, homebuilders and real estate people may not be able to construct and sell as many large and expensive homes that provide higher profit margins and commissions but there are plenty of other arguments against such homes beyond the mortgage interest deduction (see the green argument and the moral argument). Wealthier Americans are probably still going to buy homes, because they have the money and there is still an American cultural push toward homeownership, whether the mortgage deduction is there for them or not.

There are other countries in the world with higher rates of homeownership even with the federal government’s decades-long support of homeownership. The data is a few years old but check out these figures reported by National Association of Home Builders: a number of European countries have higher and lower rates of homeownership. Of course, American homes tend to be larger than European homes and I’m reminded of quick suggestion in Suburban Nation that Americans may have the best private realm, referring to our homes, in the world.

I assume a capped deduction would also limit or remove the deduction for the purchase of second homes?

Perhaps the biggest thing to note here is that the mortgage interest deduction was indeed was once a “sacred cow” but tough economic times lead to new measures.



Chicago Tribune calls for phasing out of mortgage-interest deduction

What interesting arguments people will make in the midst of an economic crisis. While one commentator has a number of reasons why he is “never going to own a home again,” the Chicago Tribune argues that the United States needs to phase out the mortgage-interest deduction. The main reason seems to be that the deduction primarily benefits wealthier homeowners, not the middle class:

Trade groups such as the National Association of Home Builders portray the benefit as a middle-class tax break. But it does a lot less for most Americans than those with a vested interest in promoting home sales would have you believe: If you rent, you get nothing. If you have reasons not to itemize deductions, you get nothing. If you pay off your mortgage to live debt-free, you get nothing.

Borrow a fortune for a McMansion, however, and the Internal Revenue Service provides a big discount, at the expense of every other taxpayer. More than three-fourths of the benefit from the mortgage-interest deduction goes to the 14 percent of tax filers reporting six-figure incomes. Almost one-third of the subsidy goes to the population reporting incomes of $200,000 or more. Those 3 percent of tax filers at the very top receive about the same amount as do the 86 percent earning less than six figures.

As a consequence, this deduction does little to promote homeownership — supposedly its main objective. Data suggest that almost no one now benefiting from the break would flee the real-estate market. People just wouldn’t borrow as much to fund home purchases.

What is remarkable to me about both of these arguments is that such arguments might have been unheard of before this economic crisis. But since the economy has gone downhill, the housing market in particular (and the most recent housing figures are not good), desperate times apparently call for desperate measures.

All of this bears watching: will homeownership remain a cornerstone of the American Dream?

Discussing the mortgage interest deduction and how pricy (and large) a McMansion is

One common use of the term McMansion is simply a large home. In this blog post about the mortgage interest deduction, the writer contrasts the price of McMansions to more normal-sized homes:

That means average homeowners with modest Capes and fixer-uppers are helping subsidize others stretching to keep up with the Jones and their million-dollar McMansions.

The measuring stick of a McMansion in this post is how large the mortgage is:

A close look at the interest rate deduction reveals much of its benefits go to homeowners with mortgages far larger than most in the middle of the housing pack. Check out this Forbes piece, which nicely lays out the argument for taking away this perk from the homeowners with outsized mortgages – incredibly the limit is currently $1 million…

The president’s deficit commission recommended capping the deduction’s use at $500,000 in mortgage debt, down from $1 million now, while nixing its use for vacation homes and converting what’s left to a 12.5 percent tax credit.

OK, I vote for keeping it simple and just lowering the mortgage cap to $500,000 or $600,000, while making second homes ineligible as well.

So a McMansion here would start with homes that cost $500,000 to $600,000. In most suburban communities, this buys a large home. In denser areas, not necessarily. What about older homes that cost this much – are these McMansions? It wouldn’t take too much searching online of real estate listings to translate these prices into square footage in particular areas.

Overall, this use of the term McMansion seems to refer to any large house beyond “modest Capes and fixer-uppers.” This use of the term seems quite vague: a McMansion is any (presumably larger) house above a certain price point.

Mortgage interest tax deduction being discussed

With the federal government looking for more money, a budget deficit commission has been discussing possible changes to the tax code to bring in more revenue. One option among a number of options: limiting or revoking the mortgage interest deduction.

Whatever this commission recommends, I can imagine the political fights that may ensue.