House of Representatives Approves Housing Bills, Bush Threatens Veto

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On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed two bills that are part of a housing stimulus package promoted by House Democratic leaders. The first is the Neighborhood Stabilization Act (H.R. 5818), which would make available $15 billion in grants for state and local governments and non-profits to buy up and rehabilitate foreclosed homes, in order to prevent neighborhoods from being adversely affected by vacancies. The second, larger bill is the American Housing Rescue and Foreclosure Prevention Act. This consists of several separate pieces of legislation offered as amendments to replace the language in the housing bill passed in the Senate, H.R. 3221. It includes language that reforms the government-sponsored mortgage funding companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, modernizes the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and allows the FHA to guarantee refinanced mortgages for homeowners in danger of foreclosure.

Housing Tax Provisions in the House Package

Another piece of legislation included in the larger bill is the $11 billion tax bill approved by the House Ways and Means Committee a month ago. It includes a refundable $7,500 credit for first-time homebuyers 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). It's not clear how helpful this could be, partly because it would not make any money available at the time a downpayment is made but would be claimed afterwards.

The House bill also has a deduction for property taxes for non-itemizers, which is capped at $350 per spouse. Because of the home mortgage interest deduction that is currently available for itemizers, most people with a mortgage currently do itemize their deductions. That means that the main beneficiaries of this provision will likely be homeowners who don't have mortgages -- even though this is a bill that is supposed to address a mortgage foreclosure crisis.

The bill also includes provisions to expand the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and to increase the use of bonds by state and local government to address housing needs.

Senate Bill Widely Panned

A month ago, the Senate passed a housing bill that was widely panned by housing advocates, policy experts, and labor, partly because of its inclusion of a "net operating loss carryback" provision (or NOL carryback). This provision 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). This would basically amount to a tax break with no strings attached for any company (not just home builders).

It's highly unlikely that this will prevent layoffs of employees as its proponents claim. Companies will always have an incentive to lay off workers if no one is seeking to buy whatever the company produces. Handing the companies a tax break with no strings attached does nothing to change that. Contrary to the claims of backers of the tax break, labor groups have argued that this provision could actually encourage construction companies to dump their excess housing inventory on the market more quickly since the tax break would cushion the losses that result from selling at lower prices.

The Senate bill also includes a $500 per-spouse deduction of property taxes for homeowners who do not itemize their deductions, which is larger than the similar deduction in the house legislation but will still save most families only $150 at the most. This deduction 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 fiscal problems.

Also included in the Senate bill 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. Unlike the credit in the House version, the Senate bill would not require the credit to be paid back over time, but it would be non-refundable, meaning fewer families could benefit from it. The Senate bill also includes provisions expanding the use of bonds by state and local government, like the House bill.

Unlike the tax provisions approved by the House, the Senate's tax cuts would not be paid for.

Veto Threats from the White House

President Bush opposes all of these bills, arguing that in many cases they reward lenders or homebuyers who acted irresponsibly. The President has threatened to veto the two House bills. White House Press Secretary Dana Perino even attacked the Senate bill, saying it "will likely do more harm than good by bailing out lenders and speculators and passing on costs to other Americans who play by the rules and honor their mortgage debt obligations." The differing provisions of the House and Senate bills and the opposition from the President make it very unclear what legislation -- if any -- will be enacted to address the housing situation.

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