The mortgage interest deduction, which has long been an untouchable pillar of the tax code for homeowners, is on the chopping block in President Obama’s 2010 budget proposal. The President wants to reform our healthcare system here in America and is proposing the mortgage interest deduction be capped at 28%. This would affect homeowners making $208,850 over the 2009 married filing jointly tax bracket income calculations. The mortgage interest deduction has been in place since we had an income tax code. All interest used to be deductible but over the years, congress has whittled down interest deductions for non-businesses to only the mortgage interest deduction. That was done with the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Several groups are up in arms about this proposal as the mortgage deduction is seen as a help for lower income folks to buy a home. Many economists however disagree that the home mortgage interest is all it is cracked up to be. In a recent blog post in the New York Times Economix Blog, Harvard University Economics Professor Edward Glazer makes some salient points about the flaws of the mortgage deduction. He outlines 5 problems with the “conventional wisdom” of the deduction as a savior of the working class hero:
Problem #1: Subsidizing interest payments encourages people to leverage themselves to the hilt to bet on housing markets. The size of the tax benefit is proportional to your debt. The deduction essentially encourages us to make leveraged bets on the swings of the housing market. That leverage means that housing price swings can easily wipe people out. We are currently experiencing the consequences of subsidizing gambles on housing.
Problem #2: The deduction pushes up prices in places where the supply of new homes is constrained, as it is in many coastal markets. Economics 101 teaches us that if we subsidize demand where supply is inelastic then the only effect is to make prices go up. Housing supply is pretty constrained in places like New York City because of land-use restrictions and lack of land. In these places, the deduction doesn’t make housing more affordable. It just transfers money from buyers to sellers, and that makes little sense.
Problem #3: The deduction is wildly regressive. The tax savings for households earning more than $250,000 is 10 times the tax savings for households earning between $40,000 and $75,000 a year, according to recent research by James Poterba and Todd Sinai.
If there ever was a case for small-government egalitarianism, then this is it. Eliminating the home mortgage deduction and replacing it with an across-the-board tax cut would equalize after-tax incomes without a single new government program.
Problem #4: The deduction encourages people to buy larger, single-family detached homes, and that increases carbon emissions and pushes people out of cities. The deduction encourages people to buy more expensive homes, which are generally bigger homes.
Bigger homes use more energy. The deduction is therefore implicitly urging Americans to run higher electricity bills and spend more on home heating. If global warming is a serious problem, then the government should be encouraging us to live in smaller, not bigger, dwellings.
Problem #5: The home mortgage interest deduction is poorly designed to encourage homeownership, which is, after all, the alleged desideratum. Much of the interest deduction’s benefits go to richer Americans who are likely to own homes in any case.
Poorer people who are on the margin of buying and renting often don’t even itemize. My own research in this area found that when the value of the interest deduction rose, during periods of high inflation, there was no observable increase in the homeownership rate.
If the goal of the deduction is just to increase homeownership, then it would make far more sense just to give a flat tax credit to people who buy homes. If the credit was independent of home value, then this would eliminate the incentive to buy bigger homes. If the credit was independent of borrowing, then this would decrease the incentive to over-borrow.
I would like to hear from the BiggerPockets community about their feelings on the mortgage deduction.What do you think? Is it truly something we can’t live without?
(Image Courtesy of: Arizona Mortgage News)