REFinBlog

Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

September 23, 2016

Is The Mortgage Interest Deduction Inequitable?

By David Reiss

photo by Elana Centor

I have certainly thought so, as do many other housing policy types. Daniel Hemel and Kyle Rozema have a more nuanced view in their paper, Inequality and the Mortgage Interest Deduction, that was recently posted to SSRN. The abstract reads,

The mortgage interest deduction is often criticized for contributing to after-tax income inequality. Yet the effects of the mortgage interest deduction on income inequality are more nuanced than the conventional wisdom would suggest. We show that the mortgage interest deduction causes high-income households (i.e., those in the top 10% and top 1%) to bear a larger share of the total tax burden than they would if the deduction were repealed. We further show that the effect of the mortgage interest deduction on income inequality is highly sensitive to the alternative scenario against which the deduction is evaluated. These findings demonstrate that claims about the distributional effects of the mortgage interest deduction depend critically on the counterfactual to which the status quo is compared. We extend our analysis to the deduction for state and local taxes and the charitable contribution deduction. We conclude that the appropriate counterfactual for distributional claims is dependent upon political context — and, in particular, on the feasible set of politically acceptable reforms up for consideration.

To make this a bit more concrete, the authors offer a simple hypothetical:

to show how a provision of the tax code can provide a disproportionate share of dollar benefits to the rich while also causing the rich to bear a larger share of total tax liabilities. Imagine a society with two households—a rich household with pre-tax income of $100, and a poor household with pre-tax income of $50. Further imagine that the rich household pays $12 in mortgage interest and the poor household pays $9 in mortgage interest. Say that the tax system is structured such that the tax rate on the first $50 of income is 20% and the tax rate on all income above the $50 threshold is 40%.

If the tax system does not allow a deduction for mortgage interest, the rich household would pay a tax of $30 ($10 on the first $50 and $20 on the next $50), and the poor household would pay a tax of $10. Thus the government would collect a total of $40 in revenue; the rich household would bear 75% of the total tax burden ($30 divided by $40); and the poor household would bear the remaining 25%. If the tax system allows each household to deduct mortgage interest, the rich household would receive a benefit from the deduction of $4.80 ($12 times 40%), and the poor household would receive a benefit from the deduction of $1.80 ($9 times 20%). The benefit of the MID in dollar terms is clearly greater for the rich household than for the poor household. In percentage terms, the rich household received 72.7% of total MID benefits, while the poor household received 27.3% of total MID benefits. And yet the rich household now bears 75.45% of the total tax burden ($25.20 divided by $33.40), as compared to 75.0% before, while the poor household now bears 24.55% of the total tax burden ($8.20 divided by $33.40), as compared to 25.0% before. (Government revenue decreases from $40 without the MID to $33.40 with the MID.) (8, footnote omitted)

The authors conclude that their analysis “simultaneously confirms and challenges widespread beliefs regarding the effect of tax expenditures on inequality. The mortgage interest deduction does indeed appear to be inequality-increasing relative to a counterfactual in which the deduction is repealed and revenues are reallocated to all households on a equal basis; when the mortgage interest deduction is evaluated against other counterfactuals, however, the distributional effects are more nuanced.” (40)

Where does this leave us? It reminds us that we should be careful about promoting simple policy proposals without taking into account the likely context in which they might be implemented.

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September 23, 2016 | Permalink | No Comments

Friday’s Government Report Roundup

By Robert Engelke

  • A paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland titled, Monetary Policy, Residential Investment, and Search Frictions: An Empricial and Theoretical Synthesis, shows that residential investment contributes substantially to GDP following monetary policy shocks. Further, it shows that the number of new housing units built, not changes in the sizes of existing or new housing units, drives residential investment fluctuations. Motivated by these results, this paper develops a dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) model where houses are built in discrete units and traded through searching and matching.
  • Sales of existing homes slipped 0.9 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.33 million, the second straight monthly decline, the National Association of Realtors said Thursday. The monthly setbacks happened after a period of steady gains that have lifted home sales up 3 percent so far this year.
  • Commercial and multifamily mortgage debt outstanding grew by $39.9 billion in the second quarter, according to data released by the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA). Multifamily mortgage debt outstanding rose by 2.6 percent to reach $1.09 trillion, while the total commercial and multifamily debt outstanding increased 1.4 percent to $2.90 trillion.
  • In August, ground breakings dropped 5.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.14 million from 1.21 million in July, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. The pace of construction was the lowest since May. Starts plummeted 14.8 percent in the South, likely reflecting the monthly volatility of the government report. Building activity increased in the Northeast, Midwest and West.
  • The GSEs current forecast shows the interest rate for the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage to finish 2017 at an average of 3.7%, hitting 3.9% during the year. Freddie Mac also stated that it continues to expect mortgage originations to top $2 trillion this year, which would be the first time originations have been that high since 2012. “Mortgage originations are expected to surge in the third quarter, reflecting the impact of Brexit in recent mortgage activity,” Freddie Mac Chief Economist Sean Becketti said. “We continue to believe that originations will reach $2 trillion this year, the highest since 2012.”

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September 23, 2016 | Permalink | No Comments

September 22, 2016

Financially Capable Young’uns

By David Reiss

boy-with-math-homework

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has issued a new model and recommendations, Building Blocks To Help Youth Achieve Financial Capability (link to report at bottom of page). It opens,

To navigate the financial marketplace effectively, adults need financial knowledge and skills, access to resources, and the capacity to apply their money skills and habits to financial decisions. Where and when during childhood and adolescence do people acquire the foundations of financial capability? The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) researched the childhood origins of financial capability and well-being to identify those roots and to find promising practices and strategies to support their development.

This report, “Building blocks to help youth achieve financial capability: A new model and recommendations,” examines “how,” “when,” and “where” youth typically acquire critical attributes, abilities, and opportunities that support the development of adult financial capability and financial well-being. CFPB’s research led to the creation of a developmentally informed, skills-based model. The many organizations and policy leaders working to help the next generation become capable of achieving financial capability can use this new model to shape priorities and strategies. (3, footnotes omitted)

I have been somewhat skeptical of CFPB’s financial literacy initiatives because there is not a lot of evidence about what approaches actually improve financial literacy outcomes. Unfortunately, this report does not reduce my skepticism. While it claims that it is evidence-based, the evidence cited seems scant, as far as I can tell from reviewing the footnotes and appendices.

The report concludes,

Understanding how consumers navigate their financial lives is essential to helping people grow their financial capability over the life cycle. The financial capability developmental model described in this report provides new evidence-based insights and promising strategies for those who are seeking to create and deliver financial education policies and programs.

This research reaffirms that financial capability is not defined solely by one’s command of financial facts but by a broader set of developmental building blocks acquired and honed over time as youth gain experience and encounter new environments. This developmental model points to the importance of policy initiatives and programs that support executive functioning, healthy financial habits and norms, familiarity and comfort with financial facts and concepts, and strong financial research and decision-making skills.

The recommendations provided are intended to suggest actions for a range of entities, including financial education program developers, schools, parents, and policy and community leaders, toward a set of common strategies so that no one practitioner needs to tackle them all.

The CFPB is deeply committed to a vision of an America where everyone has the opportunity to build financial capability. This starts by recognizing that our programs and policies must provide opportunities that help youth acquire all of the building blocks of financial capability: executive function, financial habits and norms, and financial knowledge and decision-making skills. (52)

What the conclusion does not do is identify interventions that actually help people make better financial decisions. I am afraid that this report puts the cart before the horse — we should have a sense of what works before devoting resources to particular courses of action. To be crystal clear, I think teaching financial literacy is great — so long as we know that it works. Until we do, we should not be devoting a lot of resources to the field.

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September 22, 2016 | Permalink | No Comments

Thursday’s Advocacy & Think Tank Roundup

By Robert Engelke

  • In New York City and elsewhere, homes purchased by white Americans have historically appreciated in value over the long-term, launching these families on a path of upward mobility and allowing them to build assets and transfer them to the next generation. In this week’s Building Justice blog, Colvin Grannum, president at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, writes that these benefits historically have not accrued to the vast majority of black homeowners, who tend to own homes in racially segregated communities which frequently suffer from disinvestment.

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September 22, 2016 | Permalink | No Comments

September 21, 2016

Multifamilies for Retirement Income

By David Reiss

photo by Laurent Montaron

Financial Advisor quoted me in More Retirees Turning To Multifamily Homes For Income. It opens,

Many clients are investing in multifamily residences as a way to generate retirement income.

“A common way for people nearing retirement is to buy a triplex or fourplex, live in one unit and rent out the others,” said Keith Baker, a financial advisor and professor of mortgage banking at North Lake College in Irving, Texas. “They sell their home and use the equity they have built up to do this, and if they still owe some debt, it will be paid down more quickly.” Among the best multifamily properties to acquire for supplemental income is one that has separate entrances with no shared common areas so that each family has their own space, according to Michael Foguth, a financial advisor in Brighton, Michigan.

“Townhomes are very popular,” Foguth told Financial Advisor. “Also popular are duplexes where you have one unit on the ground level and one unit on the second level.”

But clients should not spend so much money to acquire a property that their retirement income ends up undiversified. “If the bulk of your retirement income is tied up in one property, you are exposed to natural disasters like floods as well as economic downturns in that market,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who teaches real estate finance.

An alternative to buying a property is modifying an existing residence with the intent of renting out rooms on websites like AirBnB or HomeAway. “You would need to make sure that deed restrictions, zoning and city ordinances allow this,” Baker said. “It also will require property insurance and additional liability coverage.”

When a multifamily rental property is also a primary residence, a portion of the mortgage is tax deductible, according to Carla Dearing, CEO of SUM180, an online financial planning service. There may also be the opportunity to leverage tax benefits like depreciation.

“Selling your home and taking out a loan on a rental four-unit apartment complex allows you to deduct from your income the pro-rated interest expense along with the depreciation expense of the portion of the units you don’t live in so that much of the income is sheltered,” Baker said.

Over time, the income support received from a rental property can be greater than the interest income from investing in the stock market. “You’re likely to receive a nice stream of income when you are renting to people with guaranteed incomes,” said James Brewer, CFP, in Chicago. Nationally, the average price-to-rent ratio is 11.5, meaning that the average property owner is buying a property for a price of 11.5 years worth of rent, which is an estimated 8.7 percent yield on her investment, according to data from Zillow.

A house that cost $200,000 should bring in $1,450 per month in rent using the national price-to-rent average, according to Matt Hylland, an investment advisor with Hylland Capital Management in Virginia Beach. That’s compared to 10-year government bonds, which yield 1.7 percent and the S&P 500 index, which yields about 2 percent.

“But this 8.7 percent is before any costs,” Hylland noted. In other words, clients who add rental property to their portfolios should also add cash to their emergency funds so that have money on hand to maintain and repair the house. “If the roof needs replacing, do you have $5,000 available to fix it?” asks Hylland.

Ideally, a multifamily acquisition will be move-in ready. “Homes that require construction or renovation can easily turn into a money pit, costing twice what you estimate up front,” Dearing said.

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September 21, 2016 | Permalink | No Comments

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

By Robert Engelke

 

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September 21, 2016 | Permalink | No Comments

September 20, 2016

Comparing Rental Housing Across the Atlantic

By David Reiss

photo by Tiago Fioreze

The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies has released a working paper, Rental Housing: An International Comparison. The abstract reads,

This report compares rental housing in 12 countries in Europe and North America, using individual records from household surveys. Differences in housing characteristics, conditions, and costs across countries reflect a number of factors, including demographics, geography, culture, and government policies. A lack of comparable data can make international comparisons difficult to execute, but such analysis is valuable for understanding and contextualizing differences in affordability and other characteristics of renter households and housing.

The analysis revealed the US, along with Spain, as notably unaffordable for renter households, based on a number of measures. The greater apparent cost burdens reflected a variety of factors, including differences in characteristics of the housing stock and differences in tax burdens, as well as measurement problems.

However, two major influences – differences in the size and availability of housing allowances and the degree of income inequality – emerged as the main drivers of differences in housing affordability. The effects of supply-side factors such as the extent of social housing supply, supply subsidies, and rent controls were unclear, due to problems with the identification and description of below-market rentals in the household survey data. (1)

The housing stock and political context is so different among countries, but this type of analysis is still very useful and can offer valuable lessons to the United States:

One factor that appears to contribute to the pervasive affordability problems in the US is the degree of income inequality. That is not a feature of the housing market per se, but there may be opportunities to address the consequences of income inequality through appropriate housing policies.

Other countries have devoted more resources to ameliorating the problems of unaffordable housing. The US provides fairly generous housing benefits to only a small share of needy households. In the UK, a broadly available system of housing allowances offsets what would otherwise be a much more severe affordability problem than exists in the US. In other countries, affordable rental housing supplied by governments or nonprofits helps to address affordability issues, although the efficiency of that practice, relative to the provision of housing allowances, has been questioned, as it has been in the US. The EU-SILC data used in this analysis did not adequately identify or describe below-market-rate housing, making it impossible to adequately assess the effects of such housing.

The somewhat larger size and perhaps higher quality of units in the US rental stock also affects relative affordability, although relative quality and its effect on cost differences are difficult to assess using the available data. The large share of single-family detached rentals in the US reflects preferences, the demographic mix among renters, land availability, etc., but it could also reflect zoning and other regulations limiting the supply of less expensive multifamily rentals. It is hard to imagine that regulations are more stringent in the US than in some of the more dirigiste nations of Europe, but regulations elsewhere may dictate, rather than constrain, density and cost reductions. The size and quality of the housing occupied by low-income renters in the US reflect the fact that most of those units were originally built for owner occupancy or for higher-income renters. That’s probably true in other countries as well. Whether the extent of such filtering is greater or less in various countries is perhaps worth exploring in the future. (37-38)

Income inequality, housing subsidies and land use reform — the report hits on a trifecta of key issues that housing policy should be dealing with. While I do not see much of an appetite for major reform of the first two items in today’s political climate, there might be support for some loosening of land use restrictions on housing construction. I wonder if there is some room for movement on that third front. Can local jurisdictions be incentivized by the federal government to build more housing?

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September 20, 2016 | Permalink | No Comments