Time to Renovate the Mortgage Interest Deduction

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The lack of affordable housing in America’s fast growing cities is reaching epic proportions as more and more families are being priced out of homeownership.  In 2012, a middle class family could afford 44 percent of the homes for sale. By 2016, the share of affordable listings declined 12 percentage points to just 32 percent.

This housing equality gap is amplified by a very popular federal tax policy known as the mortgage interest deduction (MID).  This policy first appeared in 1894, when all forms of interest, including mortgages, were deductible from federal income taxes. This was a time when homeownership rates were low, the 30-year mortgage was nonexistent, and families generally paid cash if they bought a home at all.

Over time the mortgage interest deduction grew in popularity, making it hard for policymakers to cut.  When the housing market tanked in 2007, the extra incentive of the MID helped boost the number of people willing to buy rather than rent and quickened the pace of the housing recovery.

The MID has outlived its usefulness. Only homeowners who itemize their deductions can receive MID’s tax benefit. Under the proposed GOP tax plan, even fewer middle-class households will find it worthwhile to itemize.  

This forms an unintended but impenetrable income divide between homeowners who take the MID and those who don’t. Households that make over $100,000 in annual income benefit the most, receiving 77 percent of the subsidies. Homeowners  earning more than $200,000 receive over a third of the benefit.

This benefit comes at a cost. The Federal government paid an estimated $77 billion to subsidize homeowners in 2016, plus an additional $34.7 billion in subsidies for local property taxes. Shamefully, this is more than double the $47.8 billion HUD spent on rental vouchers, community grants and other housing programs for low-income families last year, even before the $6.2 billion in cuts that the Trump Administration proposed for 2018.

As many economists will readily point out, the MID distorts the housing market, by subsidizing folks who buy one or more homes and then write off the interest. The subsidy also rewards size and sprawl, because the bigger and more expensive the house, the greater the subsidy. In this way, the added demand incentivized by the MID pushes up home prices and soaks up much needed supply.

Since interest rates are on course to rise this year, the cost of the MID to the American taxpayer will only grow larger. Meanwhile much needed housing programs are on the chopping block. Only a quarter of the families that qualify for rental subsidies actually get them even though rents have risen 16 percent since 2000.  

The MID is in dire need of an update. It should be restructured to help working class and middle-income families become homeowners, instead of helping the wealthiest among us. Making a subsidy implicitly available only to high earners that itemize is tone deaf to the realities of the present housing market.  

The single biggest thing the Trump Administration and Congress could do to close that gap is a second wave of lending reform, where the government more aggressively backs middle-class mortgages. This would let working class people move to where the good jobs are, and protect the economic diversity that has been the hallmark of America’s cities since the 18th century.  

Congress should reroute those regressive mortgage interest subsidies from high-income to middle-income families. Among other ideas for reform, it can cap the amount of mortgage that can be written off, limit the number of homes a owner can receive a deduction to one and  impose an income cap on homeowners who receive mortgage interest subsidies, making these caps no more than 75 percent of the area median household income.  

It’s time to renovate the MID to make it work for the middle class. An America-first economic agenda starts at home.  

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Chief Economist

Nela leads Redfin’s housing market research team on data reports that help Redfin customers make informed choices. She comes to Redfin from Bloomberg LP, where she served as a senior economist with Bloomberg Government. She also served in past roles in the mortgage industry, capital markets and financial policy. Redfin is a full-service real estate brokerage that uses modern technology to make clients smarter and faster. For more information about working with a Redfin real estate agent to buy or sell a home, visit our "Why Redfin?," page.

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