Per the WSJ($):
The Internal Revenue Service dealt a serious blow to
organizations that provide down-payment assistance to home buyers in a
ruling that could curtail the ability of lower-income U.S. citizens to
In the past eight years or so, a number of large
nonprofit organizations -- including Nehemiah Corp. of America, of
Sacramento, Calif., and AmeriDream Inc., of Gaithersburg, Md. -- have
doled out hundreds of millions of dollars of cash down-payment
assistance to mostly low- and moderate-income home buyers. According to
industry estimates, as many as 625,000 people were assisted by such
groups with their down payments between 2000-05. The programs have been
widely viewed as helping to increase the nation's homeownership rates,
which rose to 69% last year from 67% in 1999.
Why? A lot of the tax code is skewed to promote home ownership. So why is the IRS penalizing a program that seems to make a lot of sense?
In its ruling yesterday, the IRS said these aid groups funded largely
by home builders and other sellers no longer qualify for tax-exempt
status because the benefits of the programs are going to sellers and
profit-making entities. In its statement, the IRS said it has found
"that organizations claiming to be charities are being used to funnel
down-payment assistance from sellers to buyers through self-serving,
Uh-oh. Its those nasty profit making ventures again. What's going on here? Basically a home-builder gives the down payment for a home to a charity which in turn gives it to a buyer who in turn gives it back to the home-builder. Let's say the down payment is 10%. This arrangement acts as if the home-builder is giving the buyer a 10% discount, just circuitously.
So why is it so circuitous? Why don't they just give the discount directly? Is it some kind of tax dodge? The answer to the latter is probably not. From a corporate tax standpoint, the current circuitous charity method produces a 10% charitable donation on a 100% price sale. The discount approach just produces a 90% price sale. Tax wise, these are equivalent. So why doesn't the home-builder, if it wants to be generous to low-income buyers, just give them the discount?
The answer is, because the government does not allow it!
The majority of home buyers affected by this ruling are those who
qualify for mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration, a
federal agency responsible for aiding first-time and lower-income home
buyers. Under FHA guidelines, home buyers seeking mortgages must have
their own funds to use for a down payment or they can get assistance
from a relative, employer or a charity. They can't get assistance
directly from the seller.
The only argument against this practice made by the IRS is that the price of the house is increase by a fee added in the process by the charity that facilitates the transaction. But this is one of those classic government regulatory jobs where the result that instead of getting a home with a bit of extra fee in the transaction, people will instead not be able to get a home at all. No one points to anyone being hurt, and in fact the article points out that 35% of FHA loans depend on these charities for down payments. (There is also some hint that this process may increase default rates, but the only evidence is that default rates for this type of transaction are up -- but default rates on mortgages are up across the board right now.)
And, by the way, what is wrong with charity by a business that, in addition to helping out a charitable cause, also helps out its business? For example, my company gives coupons for free one-day jetski rentals at Lake Havasu all the time to charity auctions in our area. We do it to support charity, but also because it provides us some free advertising and often people who win the certificate also show up with friends who become paying customers. So what? Is my charity tainted because I have created a win-win?