WASHINGTON — The U.S. homeownership rate, which soared to a record high 69.2 percent in 2004, is back where it was nearly two decades ago, before the housing bubble inflated, burst and took more than 7 million Americans from their homes.
With ownership at 65 percent and home values rising, housing industry and consumer groups are pressing lawmakers to make the American dream more inclusive by ensuring new mortgage standards designed to prevent another crash are flexible enough that more families can benefit from the recovery.
Regulators are close to proposing a softened version of a rule requiring banks to keep a stake in risky mortgages they securitize, according to five people familiar with the discussions.
Lawmakers shaping housing finance are seeking to reduce the government’s role in keeping rates affordable for riskier borrowers while ensuring homeownership is within reach of minorities and first-time buyers who could be needed to sustain the housing recovery as borrowing costs rise from record lows.
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Who will be able to buy property depends on the balance they reach, according to Anthony Sanders, a professor of real-estate finance at George Mason University in Virginia.
“Low down-payment loans coupled with exotic adjustable-rate mortgages helped fuel a massive housing bubble, which ultimately burst and took down the financial sector,” said Sanders, who was the former head of mortgage-bond research at Deutsche Bank. “So the question now is, do we want to do this again?”
But Yale University economist Robert Shiller said homeownership has been oversold. The 65 percent rate may even be high, compared with robust economies such as Germany’s, where 53 percent own homes, and Switzerland, with a rate of about 35 percent, Shiller said. Homeownership may inhibit economic growth by limiting the ability of families to move as freely for jobs, and the government subsidies could be used for other purposes.
“We’ve learned that the risks matter,” Shiller said. “We’ve seen the consequences of encouraging people to put all their life savings in one investment. Public support for homeownership will be lower for years to come, and I would be surprised if this boom turned out to be as big as the last one.”
The homeownership rate in the second quarter was unchanged from the prior three-month period, according to Census Bureau data released Tuesday. It will hit bottom at about 64 percent in the next year as families leave the foreclosure pipeline and enter rental homes, according to a May analysis by London-based Capital Economics.
It’s currently the lowest in almost 18 years after averaging about 64 percent for 30 years through 1995.
First-time buyers and minorities are among the groups that have seen the sharpest declines since the crash.
While ownership among senior citizens was little changed at about 81 percent, the share below age 35 that own a home fell to about 37 percent from almost 42 percent five years earlier.
The rate for blacks reached almost 50 percent in the second quarter of 2004 from about 43 percent in 1995, Census Bureau data show. By the second quarter of this year, it had dropped to 42.9 percent. The rate for whites fell to 73.3 percent in the second quarter, from 76.2 percent in 2004.
The median home price rose 13.5 percent in June from a year earlier as one in three properties were purchased with cash, according to the National Association of Realtors.
The share of first-time buyers, which historically averaged about 40 percent, has fallen to 29 percent, according to the Realtors’ group.