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America's disappearing mortgage tax break finds few defenders

Joe Light and Prashant Gopal, Bloomberg News on

Published in Business News

"People were shocked," Mickelson said.

The agreement only goes so far. While Mickelson's group wants to reinvest the savings from limiting the mortgage-interest deduction into help for low-income renters, neither bill in Congress does that.

Both the Senate and House bills increase the standard deduction to $24,000 from $12,700 for a married couple filing jointly. The House plan also caps the home-loan write-off to mortgages up to $500,000 instead of the current $1 million limit. The plans have other elements that stand to disrupt the housing market, from shifts in capital-gains levies on home sales to limiting deductions on state, local and property taxes.

While housing lobbyists' furious opposition to the tax overhaul didn't emerge until the last few months, the industry's tax breaks have been vulnerable for much longer, said Isaac Boltansky, a policy analyst with Compass Point Research & Trading.

"The die was largely cast the minute the GOP swept the 2016 election," said Boltansky, who said getting rid of or lessening the value of itemized deductions was always going to be a target of a tax bill in order to save money for broader cuts.

Jon Gruber, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he opposes the GOP tax plan because it adds to the deficit at the benefit of the wealthy, but that the mortgage-interest deduction isn't something that should be saved. The perk would cost the government almost $80 billion by 2019, according to Congress's nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation. The government could spend much less, for example, on a permanent tax credit for first-time buyers, Gruber said.

"If the goal is middle-class homeownership, you could just as well be throwing $100 billion in the ocean," Gruber said. "At least then you'd have a landfill and you could build a house there."

Gruber co-wrote a July working paper, "Do People Respond to the Mortgage Interest Deduction?," using Denmark's sharp cut in its mortgage deduction for top-rate earners in the late 1980s to make the case.

"The mortgage deduction has a precisely estimated zero effect on homeownership," the paper concludes. "The largest effect of the mortgage deduction is on household financial decisions, inducing them to increase indebtedness."

 

Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors, said he's skeptical of studies that use very different mortgage systems in other countries to make conclusions about the U.S. Without the deduction, the homeownership rate would drop by one or two percentage points, he said.

It's "simple logic" that the deduction is one of many factors that encourages purchases, Yun said. A study that his group commissioned said home prices in the short run could decline 10 percent with the elimination of the deduction, as potential buyers stop factoring it in to how much they can pay.

Weicher, the benefit's backer, said economists who oppose the mortgage-interest deduction tend not to have studied it themselves and merely take that view because it's what other economists they know believe.

The last time the deduction was under assault, a few years ago, he was popular with newspaper opinion pages. He said he wrote op-eds that appeared in a handful of publications as they got interested in having columns, both pro and con, running side by side.

"Nobody else has an MID op-ed that takes the pro side," Weicher said.

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