The Equity of Housing Tax Benefits

The wide-ranging housing bill recently passed by Congress includes a program to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, money for community development, and other measures. One of its important provisions is a one-time tax benefit of $7,500 (or 10% of the home’s purchase price, whichever is less). Unlike many of the existing tax benefits of home ownership, there’s an income limit and the benefit must be repaid, although without interest. The income limit is $75,000 for singles and $150,000 for couples.

The National Association of Realtors explains the the pay-back requirements:

It is not a full credit because you do have to pay back this amount over a 15 year time period from the second year. The payback provisions also have many conditions, which we are further researching. But in the worst case, you would need to pay back the $7,500 over a 15 year time span from 2010. So in your 2010 tax filing, you would need to pay $500. Even in the worst case scenario of paying back the tax credit fully over a 15 year time span, the tax credit is still a huge benefit to homebuyers. First, money today is worth more than money tomorrow – far more than money 15 years from now. Money loses value over time due to inflation and from the interest income one would receive on that money before fully paying it back.

Let’s take a look at the effects of the existing homeowner tax benefits.

This 2004 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition has some interesting analysis. This graph breaks down the estimated size of the various housing tax benefits, including the mortgage interest and property tax deduction and housing capital gains exemption. They point out these three benefits were more than double HUD’s total outlays in 2004.

Housing Subsidies

The particularly interesting things about these benefits is how deeply regressive these benefits are. When housing programs and tax benefits are factored, we spend 2.2 times more money on housing for the richest two-fifths of the population than the poorest two-fifths. The richest fifth of society — with incomes above $86,585 in this 2004 report — get over $50 billion in benefits.

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Since the benefit is something of a sacred cow, I don’t expect it to go away anytime soon. We should just keep them in mind when debating funds for affordable housing or the equity of congestion charges.

> National Low Income Housing Coalition: Changing Priorities: The Federal Budget and Housing Assistance 1976 – 2005
> USAToday: Housing rescue bill may fall short; Who benefits?
> The Tax Foundation: Who Benefits From the Mortgage Interest Deduction?

Author: Rob Goodspeed