Allowing individuals to deduct mortgage interest payments drives up taxes on other Americans given the need to recoup the lost revenue, or, alternatively, adds to the deficit. The mortgage interest deduction itself drains $100 billion annually from the U.S. Treasury. When other tax policies meant to encourage home ownership are added — including the deductibility of state and local property taxes and the exemption of capital gains taxes from selling a home — that number rises to $175 billion.
But even if one were to accept that boosting home ownership is a worthy goal for government, the interest deduction and accompanying tax benefits for homeowners should be seen as a miserable failure. That’s the conclusion of economists Andrew Hanson, Ike Brannon, and Zackary Hawley in a study prepared for the R Street Institute, a right-of-center think tank, and published in National Affairs.
The authors took a detailed look at the distribution of existing tax benefits for home ownership and found that the benefits do more to help wealthier Americans purchase larger homes than they do to encourage lower-income Americans who otherwise would be renting to purchase homes in the first place.
The study found that in Atlanta, Denver, Detroit, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Seattle and Washington, D.C., 80 percent of taxpayers earning more than $100,000 claimed the deduction, compared with just 25 percent of those earning less.
In monetary terms, the deduction is also significantly more valuable for higher-income households.
The deduction applies to mortgage debt of up to $1 million and debt from second homes can count toward that amount. Furthermore, because high-income earners are taxed at a higher rate, each dollar of earnings they get to deduct from their taxes is worth more.
A family with a household income of $500,000 with $1 million in mortgage debt being financed at 4 percent would generate $16,000 per year in tax savings, according to the authors’ calculations. In contrast, a household earning near the national median income of $51,000 with a home worth $221,000 (the median price), would receive tax savings of one-tenth that amount.
There are several leading objections to scrapping the mortgage interest deduction. One is that it would drive down home prices. Another is that American homeowners already purchased homes and did tax planning on the assumption that the tax benefit would be in place.
As to the first argument, while it’s true that limiting or eliminating the deduction would reduce the artificially inflated value of homes, that would be true of homes everywhere. That means homes would be cheaper for people shopping for new homes, as well as those hoping to sell their current homes and purchase new ones.
Also, proposals to reform the mortgage interest deduction can be designed to phase in the changes over time, so that homeowners can gradually adjust.
If we did this, it should be done as part of a broad program of reform including lower tax rates; otherwise, it’ll be just another mont grab by the D.C. Bloodsuckers.