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In Real Estate, Tax Credits And Loopholes Are Common


President Trump was able to avoid millions of dollars in taxes, in part because he worked in real estate. Tax advocates say the industry is riddled with credits and loopholes, as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Donald Trump has long portrayed himself as a superbly successful business tycoon. Here he is in a 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I built an unbelievable company - some of the greatest assets anywhere in the world - real estate assets anywhere in the world.

ZARROLI: And as a real estate mogul, Trump has been able to use his businesses to avoid paying many millions of dollars in taxes over the years, according to an investigative report by The New York Times. Frank Clemente, executive director of Americans for Tax Fairness, says this isn't unusual for a big developer.

FRANK CLEMENTE: The tax code is riddled with loopholes to benefit the real estate industry probably more than any other industry.

ZARROLI: Real estate developers are almost encouraged to take big risks. Federal law lets them borrow heavily to build a project. And when it comes time to pay taxes, they can deduct the interest on their loans. They can claim big tax breaks for depreciation, which is another word for the ordinary wear and tear on their buildings. And they can deduct lots of the expenses that come with running the building.

Mark Mazur of the Tax Policy Center says this allows developers to basically avoid paying taxes for years.

MARK MAZUR: If you have a fairly long time horizon, you can invest in real estate properties that increase in value over time and defer your tax liability on that till when you sell the property.

ZARROLI: Trump has found ways to lower his tax bills on some of his biggest real estate projects. In 2013, Trump went on Bloomberg TV to unveil the new Trump International Hotel in Washington.


TRUMP: In the end, we'll have one of the great hotels of the world. It's an amazing building.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Will this be the nicest hotel in Washington? There are a lot of nice ones.

TRUMP: Well, this will be, by far, the best hotel in Washington.

ZARROLI: Because the hotel was built in the Old Post Office building, Trump was able to get a tax break for historic preservation. Today, the hotel is struggling. In fact, many of his properties over the years have racked up huge losses. And the losses on those properties - his Atlantic City casinos and golf courses - have allowed Trump to cut his taxes even more. He claimed losses of more than $700 million on his 2009 tax returns alone, apparently because his casinos went broke. Mark Mazur of the Tax Policy Center says the losses he's claiming are way larger than normal.

MAZUR: The differences here are just the extremes. The numbers involved seem to be quite large.

ZARROLI: These staggering losses from his real estate properties have enabled Trump to cut his taxes to the bone, and he's done that by taking advantage of the tax code.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.