Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

January 10, 2014

Tax Incentives for Sustainable Homeownership

By David Reiss

Harris, Steuerle and Eng have published New Perspectives on Homeownership Tax Incentives in Tax Notes. The report presents

three tax reforms designed to promote homeownership that are fundamentally different from earlier proposals. Many of those earlier proposals would convert existing deductions into credits but would mistakenly, in our view, perpetuate flaws in the current system — namely, the failure to adequately promote the accumulation of home equity. The reforms examined here instead share the common characteristic of subsidizing homeownership through a channel other than the deductibility of mortgage interest, which is the largest tax expenditure for housing. These reforms include a first-time home buyer tax credit, a refundable tax credit for property taxes paid, and an annual flat amount tax credit for homeowners — all largely paid for by restricting the home mortgage interest deduction to a rate of 15 percent. Although far from perfect, these reforms would provide a better and more efficient allocation of housing subsidies and ultimately provide a somewhat larger incentive for wealth accumulation than current policy does. Our simulations show that relative to existing incentives, each policy would raise home prices and make the tax code more progressive. (1315)

This report has some drawbacks, such as overstating the case that empirical studies reinforce “the notion that homeownership improves American communities.” (1315) In fact, the empirical literature is decidedly ambiguous about the spillover and wealth accumulation effects of homeownership, particularly when the last few years are taken into account (I discuss these ambiguities here).

But the report also presents some creative ways to change the incentives that are found in the tax code. They argue, for instance, that it is better to incentivize the accumulation of home equity than unfettered mortgage borrowing. And they make proposals that would do just that.  Worth a read.

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