PLAINFIELD, Ill. -- The mortgage-interest deduction, a tax break bound tightly to the American dream of homeownership, once seemed politically invincible. Then it nearly vanished in middle-class neighborhoods across the country, and it appears that hardly anyone noticed.
In places like Plainfield, in an area known locally as Chicagoland, the housing market is humming. The people selling and buying homes do not seem to care much that President Donald Trump's signature tax overhaul effectively, although indirectly, vaporized a longtime source of government support for homeowners and housing prices.
The 2017 law nearly doubled the standard deduction -- to $24,000 for a couple filing jointly -- on federal income taxes, giving millions of households an incentive to stop claiming itemized deductions.
As a result, far fewer families -- and, in particular, far fewer middle-class families -- are claiming the itemized deduction for mortgage interest. In 2018, about 1 in 5 taxpayers claimed the deduction, Internal Revenue Service statistics show. This year, that number fell to less than 1 in 10. For families earning less than $100,000, the decline was even more stark.
The benefit, as it remains, is largely for high earners, and more limited than it once was: The 2017 law capped the maximum value of new mortgage debt eligible for the deduction at $750,000, down from $1 million. There has been no audible public outcry, prompting some people in Washington to propose scrapping the tax break entirely.
If the deduction's decline should be causing a stir anywhere, it is in towns like Plainfield, where the typical family earns about $100,000 a year and the typical home sells for around $300,000. But housing professionals, homebuyers and home sellers -- and detailed statistics about the housing market -- show no signs that the drop in the use of the tax break is weighing on prices or activity.
"From the perspective of selling and trying to buy, I don't see any evidence of that," said Paul Forsythe, who teaches physical education and coaches football at a high school.
Forsythe and his wife, Kylie, are selling their four-bedroom, two-bath home on a quarter-acre lot in one of Plainfield's older developments, which dates to 1997. They are moving with their two daughters to a nearby suburb, closer to the schools where they work. They have owned homes through the ups and downs of the local housing market, which boomed in the early 2000s and crashed in the midst of the financial crisis.
"Right now," said Forsythe, a fourth-grade teacher, "people are excited that the market is finally good again."
Such reactions challenge a long-standing American political consensus. For decades, the mortgage-interest deduction has been alternately hailed as a linchpin of support for homeownership (by the real estate industry) and reviled as a symbol of tax policy gone awry (by economists). What pretty much everyone agreed on, though, was that it was politically untouchable.
Nearly 30 million tax filers wrote off a collective $273 billion in mortgage interest in 2018. Repealing the deduction, the conventional wisdom presumed, would effectively mean raising taxes on millions of middle-class families spread across every congressional district. And if anyone were tempted to try, an army of real estate brokers, homebuilders and developers -- and their lobbyists -- were ready to rush to the deduction's defense.
Now, critics of the deduction feel emboldened.
"The rejoinder was always, 'Oh, but you'd never be able to get rid of the mortgage-interest deduction,' but I certainly wouldn't say never now," said William Gale, an economist at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to President George H.W. Bush. "It used to be that this was a middle-class birthright or something like that, but it's kind of hard to argue that when only 8% of households are taking the deduction."
Gale, like most economists on the left and the right, has long argued that the mortgage-interest deduction violated every rule of good policymaking. It was regressive, benefiting wealthy families -- which are more likely to own homes and to have bigger mortgages -- more than poorer ones. It distorted the housing market, encouraging Americans to buy the biggest home possible to take maximum advantage of the deduction. Studies repeatedly found that the deduction actually reduced ownership rates by helping to inflate home prices, making homes less affordable to first-time buyers.
But the real estate industry said that scrapping the deduction could undermine the value of what is, for most American families, their most important asset. In the debate over the tax law in 2017, the industry warned that the legislation could cause house prices to fall 10% or more in some parts of the country.
Price growth has cooled in many markets, including New York and Seattle, but not nearly as much as the most alarming estimates suggested and not in a pattern that suggests the loss of the deduction was a primary factor. Places where a large share of middle-class taxpayers took the mortgage-interest deduction, for example, have not seen any meaningful difference in price increases from less-affected areas, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the real estate site Zillow.
Skylar Olsen, an economist at Zillow, said the slowdown in the housing market probably had little to do with the tax law. Home prices have risen much faster than wages in recent years, creating an affordability crisis in many cities that probably made slower growth in prices inevitable.
"Housing markets were burning so hot at an unsustainable pace and they had to come down," Olsen said.
Business on 08/06/2019
Print Headline: Mortgage-interest deduction's decline is met with a shrug