Did you have a barbecue in your backyard on the Fourth?

Chances are you did. Almost two-thirds of U.S. households own their own homes, and most have yards, private or shared.

After decades of steady growth, the incidence of homeownership topped out at just under 66% in 1980 and has been flat or down slightly since then. This trend, while numerically small, has been alarming to economists and to lenders. The major reason has been a sharp contraction in the number of younger people buying into the American dream.

Various explanations have been offered. One is changing lifestyles -- you don't barbecue quiche. Another is affordability, with prices high and incomes growing slowly. And this has understandably worried economists and lenders.

The latest report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University points out that by the beginning of this decade, "the nation had a homeownership deficit consisting of the two million people who would have owned homes if homeownership rates had held at 1980 levels." That comes out to perhaps $400 billion in mortgage needs, or what would have been a good year's originations before the recent refinancing boom.

Making a Comeback

But now comes word that this may all be changing. "Improved affordability has halted the decade-long slide in the national homeownership rate. Although yet to regain the ground lost during the 1980's, homeownership rates for young households are on the rise," the Harvard study says.

The study makes these other key points:

* The recent surge in interest rates is worrisome but the recovery in housing is "broad-based enough to withstand a modest uptick in interest rates. Not since the 1950s has single-family activity so dominated residential investment.

* Large numbers of immigrants will eventually become an important force in the housing market.

The study points out that young immigrants made remarkable progress in homeownership during the 1980s. Nearly every ethnic group doubled its incidence of ownership in the decade, and the percentage for young immigrants from China and Taiwan climbed above the national average.

Not Affordable for All

The study also points out a negative side to homeownership. "Housing and income transfer programs serve only a small fraction of those eligible for assistance," the report says.

"Severe payment burdens have become the primary housing problem affecting the unassisted poor, but structural inadequacy also remains a concern for both owners and renters."

On a related issue, the report gives housing activists plenty of grist for their mill with this comment: "The shortage of affordable housing in prosperous suburban areas, along with persistent poverty and housing market discrimination, has contributed to the spatial isolation of the poor in economically depressed central city and outlying rural areas."

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