Senate Approves Foreclosure Bill that Mainly Helps Business; House Takes a Different Approach

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On Thursday, the Senate approved the Foreclosure Prevention Act, an $18 billion package of tax breaks and spending that proponents argue will ameliorate the housing crisis, by a vote of 84 to 12. The bill consists of the tax breaks criticized here last week and costing about $10.8 billion over ten years, around $4 billion to be spent through the Community Development Block Grant for local governments to buy or redevelop abandoned and foreclosed homes, and other amendments approved before passage that raised the cost by around $3 billion.

The tax breaks include one provision that would allow companies taking losses this year and next year to deduct them against taxes they paid in the previous four years (instead of the previous two years, as currently allowed) even though it is highly unlikely that this will prevent layoffs of employees or do anything for home builders other than encourage them to dump their inventory.

Another break included is a $500 per-spouse deduction of property taxes for homeowners who do not itemize their deductions, which will probably save families $150 at the most. It will be denied to people living in a jurisdiction that recently raised its property taxes, discouraging local governments from raising revenue needed to deal with growing state fiscal problems. Also included is a $7,000 non-refundable credit for the purchase of a foreclosed home which will do little to make housing more affordable and might actually encourage foreclosure.

The House Moves in a Different Direction

Democratic leaders in the House have indicated that they plan to move in a different direction. On Wednesday the House Ways and Means Committee approved an $11 billion package that does not include the loss carryback provision. It includes a refundable $7,500 credit for first-time homebuyers (of any homes, not just foreclosed homes) that must be paid back in equal installments over the next 15 years, which is the equivalent of an interest-free loan. Eligibility is phased out beginning with taxpayers with incomes of $70,000 (or married couples with incomes of $140,000). The House bill also has a deduction for property taxes for non-itemizers, but ,capped at $350 per spouse, it is even smaller than the one in the Senate version.

Whether these provisions will help many people obtain or keep a home seems questionable. Offering people a small interest-free loan and a tiny cut in property taxes doesn't seem useful for those who are facing foreclosure or for communities that want to preserve their neighborhoods. But at least the House bill does not include the Senate's giveaway to business, the loss carryback provision.

Other changes in the House bill include modifications to the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and other provisions. Both the House version and the Senate version have provisions to allow increased use of tax-exempt housing bonds by states and localities.

The House bill also has provisions to offset the costs of the bill, and these are provisions that should be passed regardless of Congress's search for revenue. One would require that brokers of publicly traded securities report the basis of a given security in a transaction to ensure that capital gains taxes are paid properly. Very generally, a capital gain is the difference between the price a person pays for property and the price the person sells it for later. The "basis" is the initial purchase price, and if it is not reported correctly, this can lead to an underpayment in capital gains taxes.

Another offset would delay and limit an unnecessary tax break for corporations, "worldwide interest allocation," which hasn't even gone into effect yet. Tax rules already let multinationals take U.S. tax deductions for some of their interest expenses that are really foreign. In 2004, Congress actually expanded this loophole with worldwide interest allocation, a change that is scheduled to take effect starting in 2009.

The final outcome for this legislation is unclear given the disagreements between the House and the Senate and given that the White House has signaled that it has misgivings about the Senate bill.

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