Two Ideas for Harnessing Tax Reform to Affordable Housing Expansion

December 10, 2012

The Presidential campaigns primed us (again) for comprehensive tax reform. And now it’s reportedly on the table as negotiators try to forge a “grand bargain” that will pull us back from the so-called fiscal cliff.

Some key differences between Republicans and Democrats, as you undoubtedly know. But cross-party agreement on broadening the base — an oblique term for getting rid of tax breaks.

As I’ve mentioned before, the second largest tax break for individual filers is the home mortgage interest deduction. It cost the federal government an estimated $140.5 billion last year alone.

Chances Congress will get rid of this homeownership preference altogether are somewhere close to zero, I think.

But two organizations have ideas for changing it to address the affordable housing needs of low and moderate-income people.

Creating a Revenue Stream for the National Housing Trust Fund

The National Low-Income Housing Coalition would convert the mortgage interest deduction to a tax credit — thus making it available to all homeowners instead of only those who itemize.

The Coalition would also drop the cap on the mortgage value subject to the benefit from $1 million to $500,000. Same for the interest paid on home equity loans.

These changes, it says, would save the federal government at least $20 billion a year — maybe as much as $40 billion.

NLIHC wants at least some of the savings — actually additional revenues collected — to provide a funding stream for the National Housing Trust Fund.

Brief summary of my earlier post on why that’s needed.

Congress created the Trust Fund in 2008 to provide federal financial support for affordable housing construction and preservation — mainly rental housing that extremely low-income households can afford, i.e., those with incomes no greater than 30% of the median for their area.

To finance the Fund, Congress allocated a percent of the value of new business generated by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Then the housing bubble burst. The agency that regulates Fannie and Freddie effectively declared itself their legal guardian because the risky loans they’d made put them at risk of insolvency.

And it told them to indefinitely suspend what, in ordinary times, they would have contributed to the Trust Fund.

So the Fund has remained one of those good ideas on paper only.

The NLIHC proposal is the latest of several to put some money into it — and so far as I know, the only one that would give it an ongoing revenue stream.

Creating a Renters’ Credit

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also begins with a revenue-raising conversion of the mortgage interest deduction to a tax credit.

In its proposal, some share of the savings would go to states in the form of tax credits they would then distribute to reduce rental costs for low-income families — mainly those classified as extremely low-income.

The credits would work somewhat like housing vouchers, though the way they’d compensate rental housing owners is different.

They’d generally ensure that beneficiaries paid no more than 30% of their income for rent — the usual standard for affordability. And state agencies administering the credits could do this in several different ways.

They could give the credits — or some of the credits — directly to renters, who’d then find suitable apartments (and willing owners).

The owners would then claim the credits on their tax returns, based on the difference between what the tenants paid and the units’ market rates.

Or they could pass the credits through to their mortgage holders, who’d claim the credits and lower mortgage payments accordingly. This, of course, only if the mortgage holders agree to such an arrangement.

States could also allocate some credits to specific affordable housing projects. In this case also, the owners would claim the credits or pass them through.

Finally, states could allocate credits directly to financial institutions, with the understanding that they’d reduce mortgage payments for owners who agree to rent at affordable rates.

If, as the Center suggests, the total cost of the credits were capped at $5 billion a year, about 1.2 million more very low-income renter households would have affordable places to live.

And the number who are now paying at least half their income for rent would be cut in half. An estimated 700,000 low-income families would no longer have to choose between a roof over their heads and other basic needs.

Like the NLIHC proposal, the Center’s is an innovative approach to our nationwide affordable housing problem — and the disproportionate financial assistance our system now provides to homeowners in the top fifth of the income scale.

As Will Fischer at the Center notes, Congress doesn’t have to choose one or the other. The two could work nicely together.

And with a proper cap on the mortgage interest tax credit, there’d still be money left over to help reduce the deficit that’s apparently top-of-mind for our federal policymakers.


Time to Rethink Homeownership Preferences

November 13, 2012

Several months ago, I was sitting at our dining room table and thought I heard raindrops while my husband was showering. Turns out I was hearing water running down the inside of a wall from a pipe that had been leaking for some time.

So parts of the pipe had to be replaced, of course. Also the rotted drywall, plus an unrotted portion that the plumbers had sawed out. And the whole dining room-living room area had to be repainted because the new drywall would otherwise look lighter.

Got me to thinking about costs of homeownership we don’t read much about — and more generally, about how our public policies tend to push people toward a housing choice that, for many, may be personally unsuitable and/or financially imprudent.

Consider, for example, the federal income tax code. People who sign on to a mortgage get to deduct the interest they pay, plus “points,” i.e., upfront interest that cuts the mortgage rate. Also what they pay in real property taxes.

These are fine examples of  “upside down” tax policies — so called because they deliver the most to those who need it least.

High-earners get the largest deductions because their top tax bracket is higher and they generally buy costlier houses.

Also multiple houses. And they can take interest deductions on the first $1 million they owe for two of them.

Low-income filers who’ve managed to get a home loan get a much smaller tax benefit — less than $100, on average, from the mortgage interest deduction, according to a Center for American Progress brief.

In many cases, this cuts their tax liability less than the standard deduction they can take instead. Which one reason some economists say that the mortgage interest deduction doesn’t promote homeownership — only the purchase of costlier homes.

There’s, of course, no tax preference at all for people who indirectly pay mortgage interest and property taxes as a portion of their rent.

And they generally can’t deduct interest on other debt they incur, except for student loans.

Homeowners who borrow against their equity can — interest on as much as $100,000-worth of debt, no matter what they use the money for.

These policies don’t spring out of nowhere. Owning a home is a key element of the American Dream.

We pay more than twice as much to support it, through the tax code, as for all programs administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, CAP says. And the Center’s talking only about the mortgage interest deduction.

This deduction alone cost the federal government an estimated $140.5 billion last year — more than any other tax expenditure except the exclusion of employer-provided health insurance from what the Internal Revenue Services counts as income.

So there’s a good fiscal argument for blowing away the homeownership preferences — if not altogether while our economy in general and the housing market in particular are still so shaky, then when our recovery seems reasonably secure.

But I think there’s a broader argument as well.

Homeownership is fine for those who can afford it — not only the mortgage, the insurance and the taxes, but the unexpected expenses like leaking pipes and fires.

Fine for those who are quite certain they want to sink roots in one place — and can uproot if they need to, even if housing prices fall.

But we can have secure, stable communities and residents who engage in civic activities, go to PTA meetings, etc. without distorting housing choice incentives, though interested parties say otherwise.

We read that younger people aren’t embracing homeownership the way they used to. Perhaps, as some experts suggest, we’re witnessing “the creation of a generation of renters” — and thus a partial redefinition of the American Dream.

I think this would be a healthy thing for individuals, communities and our society as a whole.

Surely it would be healthy to rebalance public policies and our collective narrative of middle-class success so that signing a lease becomes every bit as good as signing a mortgage contract.


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