A new policy brief released by the Mercatus Center and co-authored by Jeremy Horpedahl and Harrison Searles analyzes one of the most popular—and therefore one of the most difficult to reform—subsidies in the tax code: the home mortgage interest deduction. This study touches on many of the points that Emily talked about in her op-ed on the subject last month; namely, this policy’s failure to achieve its intended effects and the fact that a lion’s share of the benefits go to high-income homeowners. Despite widespread enthusiasm for the home mortgage interest deduction, the authors argue that the benefits of this policy are overstated and the consequences are understated.
The home mortgage interest deduction is one of the largest tax expenditures in the U.S. tax code, second only to the non-taxation of employer-provided health insurance and pension contributions. Proponents of the home mortgage interest deduction argue that this policy provides needed tax relief to the middle class and encourages the oft-invoked American dream of homeownership. These folks may be surprised to learn, as Horpedahl and Searles point out, that a mere 21.7% of taxpayers even claim this benefit. What’s more, most of these benefits don’t go to the middle class, but rather to households with incomes of over $200,000. Here’s a breakdown of the tax savings from the brief:
The claim that this policy is necessary to encourage home ownership is dubious as well. The authors explain:
Empirical evidence supports the claim that the mortgage interest deduction has little effect on homeownership rates in the United States. Between 1960 and 1997, homeownership rates stayed within a narrow range of 62 to 66 percent, despite the fact that the implicit tax subsidy fluctuated dramatically. During the recent housing bubble, the homeownership rate rose to 69 percent, but it has since returned to the historical range. This rise appears to have been unrelated to the mortgage interest deduction, though it was almost certainly related to other housing policies that encouraged the bubble. More sophisticated analysis suggests that the homeownership rate would be modestly lower without the deduction, by around 0.4 percent.
Ironically, the home mortgage interest deduction likely creates the perverse effect of discouraging homeownership by artificially raising home values. Economic intuition suggests, and empirical studies have supported, that the deduction does not provide much in the way of savings at all since the value of the deduction is simply capitalized into the value of home prices. The artificially higher house prices prevent would-be home owners on the margins of affordability from purchasing a home within their price range. This effect, combined with the low rates of deduction claims and concentration of benefits to high-income earners, likely contributes to the inefficacy of the home mortgage interest deduction to boost homeownership to the degree that its proponents envisioned.
Additionally, countries like Canada and Australia have managed to produce comparable rates of home ownership as the US without the crutch of a mortgage interest deduction.
While the home mortgage interest deduction doesn’t do much for increasing the number of houses, it has a knack for increasing the size of houses, as a study by Lori Taylor of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas pointed out. The deduction has had the unintended consequence of directing capital and labor to high-income residential housing projects that might not have been taken without government intervention—and the benefits overwhelmingly go to the wealthy.
This is all before considering the regressive effects of the policy by design: low- and middle-income renters are made to subsidize the increasingly opulent residences (and sometimes the extra vacation homes!) of their more well-off peers while they struggle to make ends meet in a sometimes-inhospitable economy. This injustice, combined with the inefficacy of the tax deduction to increase homeownership in any meaningful way, causes the justifications for the mortgage interest deduction to grow scarce.
In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that this policy, which evaded the fate of its similar counterpart—the credit card interest deduction—during the tax fight of 1986, continues as law not because of good economics but because of bad political incentives.
Horpedahl and Searles offer three proposals for scaling back the home mortgage interest deduction: policymakers could 1) eliminate the deduction entirely, 2) eliminate the deduction while simultaneously lowering marginal income tax rates to compensate for the virtual tax increase, or 3) stop the deduction and replace it with a tax credit that taxpayers could redeem upon purchase of their first house. Horpedahl and Searles demonstrate that while this deduction is popular with the public and the real estate industry, it is simply a bad deal for most taxpayers.