Now that President Barack Obama has won re-election, there are several housing-related challenges staring the federal government square in the face. These are some of the decisions that will have to be made in the coming weeks:
1. The "fiscal cliff": The fiscal cliff is a series of tax increases and spending cuts that will go into effect unless U.S. lawmakers come up with an alternative plan to reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion as required by the Budget Control Act of 2011. The spending cuts, known as "sequestrations," would automatically go into effect on Jan. 2 and be split evenly between defense spending and domestic spending.
The credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s has said there’s a 20 to 25 percent chance the U.S. economy will go into a double-dip recession should Congress fail to reach an agreement avoiding the fiscal cliff. S&P’s deputy chief economist, Beth Ann Bovino, warned that such a scenario would cause home prices, currently at a bottom of 31 percent below their mid-2006 peak, to tumble to a record low of 40 percent below peak.
In a report released in September, the Obama administration called sequestration "bad policy" that "would be deeply destructive to national security, domestic investments, and core government functions." The president has put forward two deficit reduction proposals that included both spending cuts and revenue increases, but has run into opposition from some members of Congress who oppose tax increases and want to reduce the deficit solely through spending cuts, the report said.
Given that Congress remains divided after the election — Republicans retained control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Democrats retained control of the U.S. Senate — whether lawmakers can come to an agreement over the coming weeks remains a question.
2. The mortgage interest deduction (MID): Revamping the mortgage interest deduction is one of the solutions proposed to head off the fiscal cliff and could be part of a broader plan to streamline the tax code by eliminating some loopholes and deductions. Some experts have said the MID, which costs the government about $90 billion a year, is unlikely to survive in its present form, though what would take its place, if anything, is unclear.
Two years ago, a bipartisan deficit reduction commission recommended scaling back the MID, which is currently capped at mortgages worth up to $1 million for both principal and second homes and home equity debt up to $100,000. The deduction is available only to taxpayers who itemize.
The commission, often referred to as Simpson-Bowles, proposed turning the deduction into a 12 percent nonrefundable tax credit available to all taxpayers, capping eligibility to mortgages worth up to $500,000, and eliminating the deduction on interest from second homes and home equity debt.
The National Association of Realtors, which has consistently defended the mortgage interest deduction in its current form, was highly critical of the recommendation, claiming any changes to the MID could depreciate home prices by up to 15 percent, and promising to "remain vigilant in opposing any plan that modifies or excludes the deductibility of mortgage interest."
3. Mortgage debt forgiveness: Another homeowner tax break may be on the table in fiscal negotiations: the Mortgage Debt Relief Act of 2007, which is set to expire at the end of this year. The law exempts up to $2 million in mortgage debt forgiven by a lender in a short sale, loan modification or foreclosure from federal taxation. The law applies only to mortgage debt incurred to fund the purchase or improvement of a principal residence.
Banks have relied heavily on short sales to meet their obligations under the terms of a $25 billion settlement with the nation’s five largest mortgage servicers over so-called "robo-signing" practices. If the debt relief law lapses, however, homeowners would have less of an incentive to pursue short sales because forgiven mortgage debt could be considered taxable income.
4. Qualified mortgages: Now that we know the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is here to stay — presidential candidate Mitt Romney had vowed to repeal it — there are two controversial rules contained within the law that are waiting to be finalized: the qualified mortgage (QM) and the qualified residential mortgage (QRM).
QM would establish standards for borrowers’ "ability to pay" the mortgages they seek, while QRM would establish certain baseline standards for safe underwriting and require lenders to retain a 5 percent minimum ongoing stake in any loans they originate that don’t meet QRM requirements.
The regulations are under the aegis of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which postponed action on both rules in June after protests from Realtors, builders, banks, unions and consumer groups. Under Dodd-Frank, the CFPB is required to issue the qualified mortgage rule by Jan. 21, 2013.