The next contentious battle to sweep through Congress looks likely to be tax reform. Already the partisan lines are forming, with a more-than-healthy dose of special interest groups on both sides. But one area where there could be bipartisan agreement is the mortgage interest deduction. It would take serious political courage all the way around, but for the first time in decades progress is possible on one of the American tax codes most costly mistakes.
What is MID?
The mortgage interest deduction, or MID, allows homeowners to deduct interest payments on mortgages from their taxable income. (Translation: lower taxes for homeowners.) Because it’s a deduction and not a credit, it only applies to tax payers who itemize their taxes rather than taking the standard deduction. (Translation: lower taxes for upper income homeowners.)
What is it supposed to do?
With the current version coming from one of Reagan’s tax overhauls in the 1980s, MID has long enjoyed bipartisan support as a way to increase homeownership. The idea is simple—if you give people who buy a home a tax break, you’ll see more people buying homes. It was part of a broader push in the ’80s to move housing affordability into the private sector, which also included the end of building new federal public housing and the birth of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.
What is it actually doing?
Answer 1) Not increasing homeownership. Research has shown that while MID may convince someone to buy a bigger home, it almost never is the determining factor in whether or not someone will buy something. That’s in large part because…
Answer 2) MID mainly helps rich families. Because it just applies to tax payers who are itemizing their taxes, only half of all homeowners are able to take advantage of MID at all. And among those homeowners, a hugely disproportionate amount of the overall money goes to the top. MID is a big part of the reason that 75 percent of all federal housing subsidy actually goes to wealthy families. (It really makes you think about who those “takers” are that some on the right rail against.)
That’s why groups as diverse as the CATO Institute and the National Low-Income Housing Alliance have come together in calling for the cap on deductible mortgages to be lowered from $1 million to $500,000. The move would affect just 6 percent of all mortgage holders, but it would save a whopping $241 billion over the next decade.
The Trump Administration has also floated this plan, although it’s not clear how it will fare once the full weight of the real estate lobby comes down against it.
The path forward
Unfortunately, disagreement arises with the question of how those savings should be put to use. While affordable housing advocates would like to see the money moved to lower-income homeowners and renters, congressional Republicans are likely to want the savings applied to their larger plan of tax breaks for the wealthy and increased military spending.
Regardless of how this plays out on a national level, DC has its own version to deal with: the Homestead Deduction, which allows all DC homeowners—no matter how wealthy—to save on their property taxes. It’s another piece of subsidy for the rich that could be fixed with a simple home value limit.
As Congress looks to rewrite our tax code, it’s important to remember who the “takers” really are. With 75 percent of federal housing subsidy going to wealthy households, MID is long overdue for restructuring.