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More on Subsidies for Homebuyers

4 min readBy: Mark Robyn

Homeownership is one of the pet causes of the federal government. The taxA tax is a mandatory payment or charge collected by local, state, and national governments from individuals or businesses to cover the costs of general government services, goods, and activities. code contains various well-known and highly-utilized provisions such as the mortgage interest deductionThe mortgage interest deduction is an itemized deduction for interest paid on home mortgages. It reduces households’ taxable incomes and, consequently, their total taxes paid. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) reduced the amount of principal and limited the types of loans that qualify for the deduction. (MID), the first time homebuyer credit, and the deduction for real estate taxes paid (this is even ignoring the non-taxation of imputed rental income).

In an attempt to give a boost to the housing market and encourage first-time buyers, New York State has announced a new program that will allow certain first-time home buyers to receive a home mortgage interest tax creditA tax credit is a provision that reduces a taxpayer’s final tax bill, dollar-for-dollar. A tax credit differs from deductions and exemptions, which reduce taxable income, rather than the taxpayer’s tax bill directly. on their federal tax return (not to be confused with the mortgage interest deduction, or the first time homebuyer credit). Other states participate in the program as well, and a quick Google search turns up programs in Texas, Mississippi, Hawaii, Washington, West Virginia, Ohio, Arizona, Michigan, Colorado, and Illinois (there may be many more).

It works like this: states issue Mortgage Credit Certificates to qualifying homebuyers. The rules seem to vary from state to state, but there are always household income limits and limits on the purchase price of the home. The limits vary by household size and even geographic location. In Cattaraugus, New York for example, the income limit is $67,900 and the home price limit is $258,690. However, those limits are relaxed for homes in Target Areas, or areas designated by the federal government as economically distressed. For taxpayers who purchase in these areas the first-time buyer requirement is also waived.

With the Mortgage Credit Certificate in hand, a portion of the mortgage interest the taxpayer paid during the year can be taken in the form of a federal tax credit, or a dollar for dollar reduction in their tax liability. That portion, called the credit rate, is determined by the state and is 20% for New York homebuyers. If the credit is greater than the taxpayer’s tax liability, the extra credit can be applied to the next three years’ tax returns. Beside simply being worth more than the MID, the credit amount can also be counted by lenders as monthly income to help the homebuyer qualify for a loan. The remaining 80% of mortgage interest can still be deducted from federal adjusted gross incomeFor individuals, gross income is the total pre-tax earnings from wages, tips, investments, interest, and other forms of income and is also referred to as “gross pay.” For businesses, gross income is total revenue minus cost of goods sold and is also known as “gross profit” or “gross margin.” under MID.

An example might be in order. Say I purchase a home and pay $10,000 in mortgage interest. In the absence of the mortgage interest credit, MID allows me to deduct that $10,000 from my income before I calculate the tax on my income (essentially the government ignores that portion of my income). So the actual reduction in tax due that I receive from the MID depends on my tax bracketA tax bracket is the range of incomes taxed at given rates, which typically differ depending on filing status. In a progressive individual or corporate income tax system, rates rise as income increases. There are seven federal individual income tax brackets; the federal corporate income tax system is flat. . Assuming my marginal tax rateThe marginal tax rate is the amount of additional tax paid for every additional dollar earned as income. The average tax rate is the total tax paid divided by total income earned. A 10 percent marginal tax rate means that 10 cents of every next dollar earned would be taken as tax. is 25%, the $10,000 deduction translates into a $2500 tax savings.

Now add in the mortgage interest credit, which says that 20% of my interest paid, or $2000, can be taken as a credit. So that $2000 dollars is subtracted directly from my final tax liability, plus I still get to deduct under MID the remaining $8000 of interest that was not used in determining the mortgage interest credit. At the same 25% marginal tax rate as before, the $8000 MID has a value of $2000. The combined effects of the deduction and the credit have reduced my income tax liability by $4000. Better than the paltry $2500 I got from the MID. This doesn’t even include the one-time first-time homebuyer credit, worth up to $8000.

What is the point of all these details? Just to point out the ridiculous lengths to which politicians will go to get more people to own homes. The four provisions described above combine to provide a substantial government subsidy for homeownership. I would also note that the tax benefits from MID, one of the largest federal tax expenditures, flow largely to higher income taxpayers. While this Mortgage Credit Certificate program is targeted at low and middle income tax payers (and is rather small in the grand scheme of things), it is still not an economically justifiable policy. Why homeowners are deserving of subsidies and not renters only a politician can explain. These types of special interest carve-outs only serve to narrow the tax baseThe tax base is the total amount of income, property, assets, consumption, transactions, or other economic activity subject to taxation by a tax authority. A narrow tax base is non-neutral and inefficient. A broad tax base reduces tax administration costs and allows more revenue to be raised at lower rates. and force up everyone’s tax rates.

As we have written before, it is widely acknowledged by economists that homeownership is greatly over-subsidized. Provisions like MID favor investment in housing over other investments and artificially pump more money into housing than is warranted or advisable. The purpose of taxes is to raise revenue for essential government services, not micromanage the housing market. In an age when it has become abundantly clear that too many people have purchased homes who could not afford them, it is hard to believe governments are still pushing homeownership.