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updated 10/6/2011 6:51:59 PM ET 2011-10-06T22:51:59

The American dream of homeownership has felt its biggest drop since the Great Depression, according to new 2010 census figures released Thursday.

The analysis by the Census Bureau found the homeownership rate fell to 65.1 percent last year. While that level remains the second highest decennial rate, analysts say the U.S. may never return to its mid-decade housing boom peak in which nearly 70 percent of occupied households were owned by their residents.

The reason: a longer-term economic reality of tighter credit, prolonged job losses and reduced government involvement.

Unemployed young adults are least likely to own, delaying first-time home purchases to live with Mom and Dad. Middle-aged adults 35-64, mostly homeowners who were hit with mortgage foreclosures or bankruptcy after the housing bust in 2006, are at their lowest levels of ownership in decades.

Measured by race, the homeownership gap between whites and blacks is now at its widest since 1960, wiping out more than 40 years of gains.

"The changes now taking place are mind-boggling: the housing market has completely crashed and attitudes toward housing are shifting from owning to renting," said Patrick Newport, economist with IHS Global Insight. "While 10 years ago owning a home was the American Dream, I'm not sure a lot of people still think that way."

He noted the now-diminished roles of mortgage buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which for decades at the urging of government helped enable loans to borrowers with poor credit, many of them minorities. In a shift, the Obama administration earlier this year said it would move from a longtime government focus on promoting homeownership for all and instead steer people with low incomes toward renting where appropriate.

Congress has been considering whether to eliminate the federal tax deduction for home-mortgage interest, a popular incentive to home-buying that's been in place since the early 20th century.

Given depressed housing values that could continue for at least another four to five years, it now makes more sense in most cases to rent than own, Newport said.

Nationwide, the homeownership rate fell to 65.1 percent — or 76 million occupied housing units that were owned by their residents — from 66.2 percent in 2000. That drop-off of 1.1 percentage points is the largest since 1940, when homeownership plummeted 4.2 percentage points during the Great Depression to a low of 43.6 percent.

Since 1940, the number of Americans owning homes had steadily increased in each decennial census due to a mostly booming economy, favorable tax laws and easier financing. The one exception had been 1980-1990, when ownership remained unchanged at 64.2 percent.

Broken down by state, 41 states saw declines in home ownership since 2000, many of them in the South and West where foreclosures were more common. They were led by South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and North Carolina. On the other end of the scale, states with higher shares of vacation homes owned by affluent baby boomers saw small increases in ownership, including New Hampshire, Hawaii, Alaska and Vermont.

The U.S. housing crisis is far worse than the experience in most Western industrialized nations, which, unlike the U.S., did not foster markets of subprime lending to promote homeownership. The U.S. continues to maintain a relatively high rate of homeownership, surpassed only by countries such as Spain, Ireland, Australia and England.

"In the U.S., there's still a strong cultural pull toward homeownership, because in normal times it's always been seen as a way to build net worth and equity," said Dan McCue, research manager at Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. But with many former homeowners now renting, he said, clearly that dynamic has changed: "It puts a renewed focus on rentals, and on ways to create new opportunities for low-income households to build their wealth."

Blacks, who as a whole have lower income and higher unemployment than other groups, were particularly set back by the housing bust. Their homeownership rate fell from 46.3 percent in 2000 to 44.3 percent; among whites, the rate dipped slightly from 72.4 percent to 72.2 percent. Whites are now on average 1.63 times more likely than blacks to own a home, the widest gap since 1960.

Among all minorities, homeownership in the U.S. rose slightly over the past decade to 48 percent from 47.4 percent, boosted by more home buying among the younger and larger Hispanic population. Hispanic homeownership increased from 45.7 percent to 47.3 percent.

In all, nearly 44 percent of all renters in the U.S. are minorities, compared with only 22 percent of homeowners. Broken down by state, minorities make up more than half of all renters in 10 states and the District of Columbia, up from 6 in 2000 — with the new states being New York, New Jersey, Mississippi, Louisiana and New Mexico.

"There is no doubt that a large part of the white-minority economic divide is reflected in the disproportionate minority representation among the nation's renters," said William H. Frey, a demographer at Brookings Institution, who analyzed the race data. "The recent financial crises, including large numbers of subprime loans to African Americans, has dramatically widened the white-black homeownership disparity."

Other census findings:

  • Homeownership rates decreased in each region of the country over the last decade. Midwesterners were most likely to own a house, at 69.2 percent, followed by Southerners at 66.7 percent, Northeasterners at 62.2 percent and Westerners at 60.5 percent.
  • For the fourth census in a row, West Virginia had the highest homeownership rate, at 73.4 percent. The District of Columbia, with its high share of single twenty- and thirty-somethings who rent, had the lowest at 42 percent.
  • While homeowners were the majority in most of the nation's metropolitan areas, they were outnumbered by renters in many of the nation's largest cities. They included New York City, where renters made up 69 percent of households, Los Angeles at 61.8 percent, Chicago at 55.1 percent and Houston at 54.6 percent.

By age, the highest ownership rate nationwide is for those 65 and older, about 77.5 percent. Older Americans are more likely to own their homes debt-free and thus be less exposed to the foreclosure crisis. Still, their homeownership rate is down slightly from a 2000 peak of 78.1 percent.

Among adults 34 and younger, homeownership was nearly 40 percent, the highest since the mid-1990s. For adults in the 35-44, 45-54 and 55-64 age groups, homeownership rates fell to their lowest since at least 1980.

Peter Francese, founder of American Demographics magazine who is now analyst for the MetLife Mature Market Institute, believes Americans aren't completely giving up on homeownership. He noted millions of young adults are delaying home-buying while they temporarily double-up with their parents, representing pent-up demand for houses that will surface once the job market begins to recover.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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