A Taxing Debate: The Mortgage-Interest Deduction

(Corrects language on deductible interest in fourth paragraph.)

The mortgage-interest deduction may be your favorite tax break, but be aware that it has some impressive enemies. The fiscal commissions of two different Presidents proposed eliminating it, first in 2005 and then in 2010. There's also a steady stream of research from such places as the London School of Economics and the Brookings Institution arguing that the deduction doesn't boost homeownership, but instead provides incentives for wealthier Americans to buy big houses and take on more debt.

Nevertheless, the mortgage-interest tax deduction survives, fortified in Washington by strong housing industry support and its presumed popularity with voters. Now, according to a recent Bloomberg Poll, a growing number of Americans may be willing to end the mortgage tax deduction -- as long as they get something in return. Forty-eight percent of respondents said they were willing to give up all tax deductions, including the home mortgage deduction, in return for lower tax rates for every tax bracket. Forty-five percent were opposed in the survey of 997 adults, conducted for Bloomberg by Selzer & Company.

The results represent a significant shift from a December 2010 Bloomberg survey that asked the same question. That poll showed a majority, 51 percent, opposed to giving up tax deductions, with 41 percent in favor. Given the pressure to lower the federal deficit, "everything is on the table," says Richard K. Green, director of the University of Southern California Lusk Center for Real Estate. "People are so desperate to figure something out that they're willing to consider anything."

Lobbyists versus Academics

The mortgage-interest deduction allows homeowners to lower tax bills by deducting interest on home mortgages from their taxable income. Interest on up to $1 million in mortgages on first and second homes is deductible, along with interest on up to $100,000 in home equity debt.

Lobbyists for homebuilders and realtors vigorously defend the usefulness and popularity of the tax break. Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors, says the deduction has "lowered the cost of ownership" and boosted the homeownership rate, which he describes as "the foundation for a very stable, democratic country." As recently as April, a USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 62 percent of respondents opposed eliminating the tax break.

If the sentiment in previous polls is an accurate reflection of attitudes, many Americans support the deduction without getting a benefit from it. The deduction has a definite high-income tilt: Only about one in four Americans includes mortgage interest on taxes. Renters and homeowners without mortgages have no interest to deduct, while many lower- and middle-class homeowners receive a standard tax deduction and don't itemize.

Dennis J. Ventry Jr., a professor specializing in tax law at the University of California-Davis School of Law, calls the provision, which costs nearly $100 billion a year, "the most inequitable and inefficient provision in the Internal Revenue Code." The benefits of deducting interest from income increase with a homeowner's tax rate, he notes. Thus, according to a 2011 study co-authored by Green, 46 percent of the deduction's tax benefit goes to households earnings more than $100,000 per year.

Unpredictable Effects

Criticizing the mortgage-interest deduction is far easier than calculating the impact of getting rid of it. If, as many argue, the deduction has spurred "overinvestment" in housing, ending the incentive may have negative and unpredictable effects.

The potential hit to the housing economy is a big unknown. Dean Stansel, an economics professor at Florida Gulf Coast University who has studied the deduction for the Reason Foundation, estimates that the tax break inflates housing prices by less than 1 percent; a separate study calculates that it raises prices by 3 percent to 6 percent.

One research paper forecasts serious trouble if the deduction should disappear, predicting that prices could fall from 2 percent to as much as 13 percent, depending on the metropolitan area. Most vulnerable would be parts of the country with higher incomes and higher home prices, which typically benefit most from the mortgage-interest deduction. For example, according to a March 2011 analysis in Tax Notes, residents of Beverly Hills, California, get a $1,873 per person benefit from the deduction, while residents of Clarksville, Mississippi, gain an average of $45 per person.

On a personal level, the deduction's biggest beneficiaries will feel the greatest pain if it disappears. Green, of the University of Southern California Lusk Center for Real Estate, estimates that households earning more than $160,000 would pay an average of $2,577 in additional taxes, even after benefiting from a proposed 15 percent tax credit. Places with pricy real estate would bear the brunt of a repeal. "The city of San Francisco would just get whacked," Green says.

Tempting Target

To avoid dire scenarios, Washington would likely do away with the mortgage deduction in a gentle fashion. The tax advisory panel convened by President George W. Bush in 2005 suggested replacing the deduction with a tax credit equal to 15 percent of interest paid. In 2009, the Bowles-Simpson Commission proposed an annual tax credit of 12 percent, limiting interest to first homes and mortgages up to $500,000.

Unlike tax deductions, tax credits can be claimed by all taxpayers, including those who do not itemize their taxes. That could help a greater number of lower- and middle-income people afford houses. Green estimates that a 15 percent mortgage-interest tax credit would boost homeownership by 2.5 percentage points.

The mortgage deduction could once again be a target for deficit cutters. According to a 2009 Congressional Budget Office analysis, gradually replacing the mortgage deduction with a 15 percent credit would yield $388 billion from 2013 to 2019. Such savings could prove tempting to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which is charged with finding at least $1.5 trillion in deficit savings over the next 10 years.

The inclinations of this "super committee" are, so far, secret, but the mortgage-interest deduction was discussed at a Sept. 22 hearing. Without making any recommendations, Joint Committee on Taxation Chief of Staff Thomas Barthold mentioned the deduction as an example of a "tax expenditure" that could be eliminated as part of an overhaul of the tax code.

The threat of mandatory deep cuts in defense spending and Medicare if the super committee cannot find enough savings may be the only way that the mortgage interest deduction can die. It's tough to end the tax break, says Green, because the costs are widespread and barely noticed, while the benefits are concentrated in a vocal minority that appreciates the deduction. "It's only in the context of overall reform that you might see something happen," he says. With public opinion turning, that day may be drawing near.

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