Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
The most serious effects of the House and Senate proposals would unfold over years for urban citizens.
The tax bill passed by Republican senators on Friday represents the most substantial overhaul to the U.S. tax code since the Reagan era. That legislative process in 1986 unfolded over six months, and involved more than a dozen public hearings. This measure was rushed through in weeks, with zero hearings in Congress. Last-minute changes were hand-written in the margins right up until a dead-of-night vote. Few of those who voted on it had fully read the text. Political imperative won the day.
Who are the losers? The country is still figuring that out. But, under both the House and Senate bills, there are plenty. Most Americans earning less than $75,000 a year would be worse off by 2027 than they are now, mainly due to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. The vast majority of benefits would flow to businesses and the country’s highest earners. The national deficit would increase by more than $1 trillion, triggering automatic cuts to many federal agencies and programs, including Medicare, and setting the stage for future showdowns over social safety net programs such as Medicaid and Social Security.
Except for the very wealthiest citizens, urban residents will face mostly harsh effects from both the Senate and House bills. Some of the most expensive and densest states, like California and New York, are in line to pay more in taxes than before, effectively subsidizing cuts to cheaper Texas and Florida. Renters might wind up paying a little less, but the poorest ones could wind up with no homes at all. And for all income brackets, commutes are likely to get worse. No wonder the public rejects these proposals by a 2-to-1 margin.
It’s not law yet; sharp differences between the House and Senate versions must be smoothed before a final bill is signed by President Trump. For five ways of city life, here’s what might be in store.
For commuters: bumpier (and bumpier) roads ahead
The Republican tax bills’ most dire impacts on urban transportation systems would unfold over the long term. Both the House and Senate proposals cap property tax deductions at $10,000, and completely eliminate deductions for state and local income and sales taxes. This would be likely to reduce state funding to cities, shrinking local budgets that pave roads, pay bus drivers, lay train tracks, and otherwise support the daily movements of millions of Americans. Streets, highways, transit systems, and airports are in bad shape now, so buckle up: They’re angling to get worse. (Unless leaders raised local taxes, which would make cities even more expensive places to live, and put the heaviest burden on low-income taxpayers.)
The Senate bill would also increase the federal deficit by an estimated $1.5 trillion over the next ten years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That would automatically trigger cuts to a variety of federal agencies, including the Department of Transportation, which again implies less money for highways, airports, and local transit projects. “It’s more than just a tax bill,” said Scott Goldstein, the policy director of Transportation for America. “It will have repercussions on programs we rely on to make reinvestments in America.” And with that much debt, it’s hard to imagine where Congress would dig up the resources for the fabled $1 trillion infrastructure package President Trump once loved to talk up.
There’s more bad news for those infrastructure dreams: The House (though not the Senate) version of the tax bill would eliminate private activity bonds, which allow developers and investors to borrow money at low interest rates for public works projects. That will make paying back loans to build new rail lines and airport terminals more expensive and drawn-out. Even in cities like Los Angeles and Seattle, where citizens have already overwhelmingly voted for multi-billion dollar sales tax measures to expand transit systems, “promises made to taxpayers won’t be kept, certainly in terms of timing,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. At a news conference last week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was more blunt: “This will mean more traffic.”
Then there are the parts of these bills that pertain specifically to transportation, which would have more near-term (and mixed) effects. Tax benefits for purchasing electric vehicles would be out the window, which would likely slow down EV adoption. Commuter tax benefits are also on the chopping block: In the House bill, companies that provide free or subsidized parking or transit passes to employees would no longer qualify for $255 per-worker tax breaks to do so. More commuters would start picking up their own tab. (For the urbanist crowd, a tax policy that eliminates parking subsidies could be considered a tiny win.) In the Senate bill, parking and transit benefits would remain, but a $20 per-month tax break available for the tiny-but-growing number of Americans who consistently bike to work would disappear.
Why single them out? For many cyclists, the answer seems to be spite.
For homebuyers and owners: cheaper houses, but higher property taxes
Caps on mortgage interest and property tax deductions in both versions of the bill would be likely to decrease home values—as much as 10 percent nation-wide, fears the National Association of Realtors. That might help shoppers currently in the market, but existing homeowners would lose serious equity. And some home buyers, especially upper middle-class ones, might find buying homes a lot less appealing.
Not every deduction has been slashed completely. The Senate version maintains the current $1 million cap for mortgage interest deductions on home loans, and the House version reduces it to $500,000. But these changes coincide with the doubling of the standard deduction, which essentially cancels out the benefit of any mortgage interest deduction. The MID has long been criticized for preserving savings for the richest Americans, so lowering it to $500,000 might seem progressive. But instead of using the MID savings to finance new affordable housing, as advocates hoped, these savings would only seep upward, as my colleague Kriston Capps writes.
By remixing the cocktail of deductions available for homeowners, the new tax bill could also shake up where and when they choose to move. Both the Senate and House bills cap state and local property tax deductions, which could push people away from the coasts. We could see “tax refugees” streaming out of states with high state and local tax rates, especially coastal ones like California and New York. Meanwhile, other changes in capital gains tax deductions could de-incentivize people from moving and selling. “When people move, there is usually a good reason,” said Lawrence Yun, the chief economist with the National Association of Realtors. “Better jobs, a call to duty by the military—now we are preventing people from taking on these better opportunities.”
For renters: lower housing costs for some; no housing for others
How these proposals would affect the 43 million American households that rent their homes is not clear. Home values, which rental prices generally follow, will almost certainly decrease. But that doesn’t necessarily mean rents will start to fall.
Without the incentives of the mortgage interest and property tax deductions, even more Americans could give up on buying homes and enter the rental market, especially in expensive cities. This could create more competition for a supply of rental housing that is already dealing with historic amounts of demand. On the other hand, lower home values might encourage some renters to become buyers. It’s impossible to say now whether the price decreases will outweigh the greater tax burdens of homeownership.
The clearest winners are rental property owners. Under both House and Senate bills, Jim Seida, a professor at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, said, ”the owner of a rental property can still deduct the financing costs of purchasing that property, and can still deduct the property taxes without limit”—unlike a homeowner. More investment would likely flow toward the rental market, which again could lead to lower prices for renters by heating up competition among the builders and property owners.
But even as capital flows into the traditional rental market, the affordable rental market will probably be hammered. A huge decrease in the corporate tax rate will significantly reduce investor interest in the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC). An analysis by Novogradac and Company, a CPA and consulting firm, found that the bills’ proposed 20 percent corporate tax rate would make the LIHTC 15 percent less valuable, which would result in $1.2 billion less in investment in affordable housing over the next decade.
An even bigger blow to affordable rental housing could come from the House bill’s provision to end private-activity bonds. These tax-free municipal bonds are the primary mechanism by which affordable housing developers can access LIHTC tax credits, accounting for more than 60 percent of the construction and rehabilitation of affordable housing. The loss of this mechanism could prevent as many as 880,000 affordable rental units from being built or preserved over the next decade.
For urbanists, a federal policy pivot toward renters might be seen as a small victory amidst all of the bad news. But for renters who were already in the most precarious economic position, things are likely to get more difficult.
For retirees: rising healthcare costs, Medicare cuts, and shrinking nest eggs
Currently, Americans who spend more than 10 percent of their income on medical expenses can deduct a number of additional expenses—like healthcare premiums and medical transportation costs—from their out-of-pocket health spending. Many older Americans rely on medical expense write-offs to afford their healthcare, since long-term services and support are not usually covered by Medicare or private insurance. In the House bill, these write-offs would be slashed, while the Senate version preserves them. The AARP and dozens of other advocacy organizations have released a joint statement expressing deep concern about the possible cut.
Additionally, because the Senate tax bill eliminates mandates for Americans to purchase health insurance, payments from younger and healthier people would no longer subsidize the costs of those who need more (and pricier) healthcare. The CBO states that, as a result, average overall premiums for health insurance would rise by about 10 percent annually over the next decade. According to a study by AARP’s Public Policy Institute, there could be an average premium increase of up to $1,500 for people ages 50 to 64 by 2019.
Another fear: The $1.5 trillion surge to the federal deficit that the CBO anticipates would force automatic cuts to Medicare—up to $25 billion in 2018, and more beyond. Medicaid and Social Security may be exempt from the mandatory spending cuts under the 2010 pay-as-you-go law, but as the deficit surges, many expect to see these programs—which keep millions of older Americans out of poverty—once again targeted for privatization.
For those older homeowners who are relying on their home equity to supplement their retirement income, a potential drop in home values triggered by tax changes (see above) would also be a blow to their long-term economic security.
Workers currently trying to save for retirement could also suffer as a result of both bills, as the proposed deductions for pass-through income might discourage small businesses—the vast majority of U.S. businesses—from offering 401k plans or other retirement benefits to employees. Currently, non-discrimination laws state that if owners are going to have retirement savings plans, they need to create similar ones for their employees. If owners don’t see an incentive to create one for themselves, they may be less inclined to do so for others, and more likely to try to save for retirement on their own. That’s bad news for workers: According to a survey from the AARP, 55 million Americans don’t have a way to save for retirement out of their paycheck.
“The data is very clear: People who make between $30,000 to $50,000 are 15 times more likely to save [for retirement] because of the convenience of payroll deduction, the fact that there’s a match, and the culture of savings fostered in a workplace,” said Brian Graff, president and CEO of the American Retirement Association. “If you’re left on your own, you don’t have those things.”
For students: higher costs for higher ed (especially grad school)
Both the House and the Senate tax plans threaten to make education less accessible by a variety of measures. The House bill has sharper teeth, with about $65 billion worth of cuts to provisions that help students and families finance undergraduate and graduate programs. The most eye-catching of these cuts is a provision that would tax tuition waivers for students who work as teaching or research assistants while earning advanced degrees, especially in STEM fields.
Unlike stipends—the taxable dollars that universities provide to help cover living expenses, like paying rent—these waivers are not money that graduate students actually see or spend. Therefore, they are not currently taxed. But the House bill treats the waivers like taxable income. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Ph.D candidate Mary Grace Hébert at the University of Illinois compared this provision to “taxing a coupon.” Grad students would see their tax burden skyrocket, and advanced degree programs would become considerably less affordable to all but the wealthiest.
There are other cuts in store for students. Today, under employer-provided educational assistance, an employer can pay working students up to $5,250, tax free. The House bill would eliminate the exempt status of these reimbursements. Additionally, the House tax plan proposes to repeal student loan interest deductions, which currently allow those paying off loans to cut their annual tax burden by as much as $2,500. This could deepen a student debt crisis that is already profound.
“If you wanted to design policies that undermine education for undergraduates, part time students, folks needing re-training, and graduate students…you would do what the House did,” said Steven Bloom, the director of government relations at the American Council on Education. While many feel that the Senate bill is better, both bills eliminate state and local income and property tax deductions, which means states would likely have even fewer funds to pass on to public school districts. Poorer schools could mean fewer students make it to college in the first place.