Tax breaks give homeowners nearly four times the housing "subsidy" provided by federal housing programs to low- and moderate-income families, according to a study for the National League of Cities.
The report, by low-income housing advocate Cushing N. Dolbeare, contends that homeowners will receive $41.4 billion this year in the form of federal income tax deductions for mortgage interest, property taxes and other home ownership costs. At the same time, the federal government will spend $10.6 billion for direct-aid housing programs. The report recommends eliminating the disparity without ending tax breaks for homeowners.
Dolbeare estimated that a household with an income of $50,000 or more received $1,866 in tax "subsidy" last year, compared with $271 in tax and direct subsidy for one earning less than $10,000.
"Clearly, federal housing subsidies are out of balance," the report concludes. " . . . Federal housing assistance should be directed toward providing decent housing for those who cannot obtain or retain it in any other way."
The report is aimed in part at influencing budget cuts and tax policy as the government moves to reduce budget deficits and simplify a tax code full of special-interest breaks.
The League of Cities, which represents local officials in about 15,000 cities, has complained that spending cuts have been singled out unfairly as the primary way to lower deficits and that a disproportionate share of cuts are proposed in programs that affect cities most.
"Policy is policy whether it is implemented through direct programs, tax expenditures or credit activities," the league's board said in a statement adopted at a national meeting here last week. "Therefore, budget and policy-making . . . must focus on the tax code and credit activities as well as on direct spending programs."
Edwin L. Dale, assistant director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the disparity underscored in the report has existed for some time and was "even greater" 30 years ago.
"Almost from its beginning, the federal income tax system contained in it a well-reasoned bias toward home ownership, which is a goal of this society," Dale said. "The president has made clear that no tax reform was going to eliminate the principal element of that, which is the mortgage interest deduction."
In 1984, mortgage deductions accounted for $23.5 billion of the $43.7 billion in housing-related tax breaks, while $8.8 billion came from property taxes and another $4.9 billion from deferral of capital gains on home sales.
Dolbeare's report argues, however, that most of the homeowner provisions in the tax code were not designed to encourage home ownership. "They are the result of a definition of income, which excluded interest and state and local tax payments . . . carried over from an emergency income tax enacted during the Civil War . . . ."
The report says the poor pay a much larger portion of their income for housing needs than do those who are better off, and that four-fifths of those in need of public housing assistance receive none.
"In 1981," the report says, "one-quarter of all households had incomes below $10,000, but they received only one-eighth of all federal housing assistance . . . . Lower-middle-income households -- 27 percent of all households -- received only 7 percent of all assistance. At the other end of income distribution, one-quarter of all housing assistance went to the 7 percent of all households with incomes above $50,000, and 43 percent . . . went to the 20 percent of households with incomes between $30,000 and $50,000."
The report suggests limiting the amount of homeowner deductions or limiting them to a principal residence.