With a nod to Dr. Strangelove, David Hasen has posted a scary little thought experiment, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love our Homeowner Tax Rules on SSRN. The essay “estimates the magnitude of life-cycle tax benefits available from home ownership for representative taxpayers.” (1)
Hasan starts with a not-that-far-fetched example of a couple who purchases a California home in the 1960s. The home passes to their daughter and son-in-law in 2013. he documents a federal and state tax savings of about $15,000 per year for every year the home is owned by the family.
A large literature has examined the distributional and allocative effects of the homeowner tax rules described above. Summarizing, the literature notes that the rules favor homeowners over renters, owners of larger homes over owners of smaller ones, and residents of states with a large owner-occupied housing sector over residents of other states. The literature also notes the efficiency costs associated with the rules, as taxpayers respond by adjusting their economic positions in ways that reduce total social wealth. The responses may include holding property rather than selling it, occupying it rather than renting it, and swapping it rather than selling it for cash, all as described above. Each of these choices, when tax-motivated, creates real economic costs.
The contribution of the present discussion is modest. One largely hidden aspect of the rules has been just how large the dollar tax savings can be relative to affected taxpayers’ overall tax liabilities, especially when considered in life-cycle terms. The discussion above gives a sense of the numbers for a relatively typical, albeit profitable, course of investment over two generations for an upper-income, but by no means wealthy couple. The bottom line is that for such a couple, taxes are reduced by 40 to 50 percent.
Benefits that are heavily skewed to higher income taxpayers and, consequently, that undermine the general distributional structure headlined in the law promote neither civic pride nor a sense of common purpose; benefits that have massive allocative effects create a large drag on the economy. If I hadn’t learned to stop worrying and love our homeowner tax rules, I might even be upset myself. (10, footnotes omitted)
Academics, myself included, rail against the way that federal housing policy overwhelmingly favors owners (wealthier, on average) over renters (poorer, on average), primarily through the tax code. It does not seem like the political will is there to change that dynamic at present. Nonetheless, it is important to keep reminding everyone of the facts: federal housing policy heavily favors the wealthy over the poor, a sure sign of a poorly designed social policy.