Don't expect much -- if anything -- in the way of targeted relief for housing in the Reagan administration's tax-cut and budget package coming in mid-February.
You can bank on cuts in your own personal income tax brackets, leaving you more money to save for a down payment or to invest immediately in real estate. But otherwise the words here are austerity, belt-tightening and getting the government out of the capital markets.
Conversations with key administration advisers and Capitol Hill Republicans suggest that the "first-round" strategy now virtually precludes new tax relief for specific segments of the economy -- such as residential real estate.
That means that top-priority legislative objectives of the mortgage-finance and home-building industries, such a creation of tax-deferred savings accounts and first-time home buyers, will have to wait until fall for serious consideration.
The big tax-cut bill now being readied at Treasury and the White House may offer depreciation reforms that simplify life for owners of commercial and investment real estate. These would, for example, allow 15- or 20-year standard depreciation schedules for rental property -- replacing the current, highly complicated "economic life" rules that pit tax auditors against real-estate owners in courtrooms across the country.
But the emerging program won't seek to help housing more directly, according to one high-ranking Reagan administration official, for several reasons.
First, the political ramifications of going to the aid of any individual industry "verge on the suicidal," in his words. "If we open the door to one group, then everybody is going to demand to come through that door -- from the auto industry right down to the beekeepers, farmers and who knows who else," said the official.
Second, the revenue losses to the Treasury associated with some of the top items on the real-estate industry's wish list are mammoth. Simply enacting a modest program of tax-deferred housing accounts for savers to accumulate down payments would involve an immediate, first-year loss of $5 billion to $7 billion, depending upon the size of the maximum annual contributions allowed.
That loss would have to be countered by either federal spending cuts or increased revenue collections from other segments of the economy to avoid worsening the federal deficit.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, according to the official, "There is a strong strain of thought [inside the Reagan administration] that housing and real estate have been overfed, have gotten more than a fair share of the capital pie, and have been part of the economy's problem, rather than a victim."
Although no one in Treasury of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) would want to be characterized as anti-real estate, said the official, "the fact remains that inflation has done wonders for people who own or deal in real estate. A lot of the purely inflationary profits from housing have gone into consumer goods -- keeping the economy hot, prices up, borrowing and interest rates high."
Alan Greenspan, the consulting economist who is a key adviser to Reagan but has not joined the government, has argued this for several years. So have other economists or officials whose primary orientations are Wall Street and the securities markets.
Their views aren't likely to turn the administration away from existing housing incentives, "but they tend to buttress Treasury's predisposition toward across-the-board types of actions."
"I'd suggest to the real-estate industry that it be patient," said the official. "Let us get the early steps under way -- cutting the budget with a view to controlling the deficit and cooling interest rates down. These things are going to benefit real estate, just as they benefit the whole economy. Then we'll look at what specific groups need."
Other Reagan officials, and staff aides to Republcian congressional leaders, say there's a reasonable chance the new Congress will go along with a phased economic strategy that begins with a broad-based tax cut, and leaves special-interest concerns for the summer or fall.
But that doesn't mean real estate is going to be neglected in the interim.
"Not at all," said George Pieler, a tax legislative aide to Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and chief advocate of a tax-deferred "housing account" system for savers who want to buy a home.
"We're committed to supporting the [administration's] overall program," he said, "but we're also absolutely committed to getting this bill [the tax-cut and budget package] through. That's what we're going to try to do -- hopefully before the end of the year."