Strong growth in minority and immigrant homeownership is likely to help offset the effects of the so-called baby bust, according to a Harvard University report due for release today.

"Fears that the baby bust would mean disaster for the housing market have clearly been overblown," researchers at Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies say.

It has been commonly accepted that housing demand will be weak in the next decade because of the small baby bust generation.

Besides being a smaller group, today's twentysomethings are forming households more slowly than their predecessors; sluggish incomes keep many young Americans living with their parents well into their 20s.

But in their report, Harvard University researchers say that minority and immigrant homeowners will pick up the projected slack through the next decade.

So will baby boomers who trade up to larger homes and buy second homes.

Population growth is expected to slow from 1.05% annually today to 0.8% between 2000 and 2010. That would be the slowest since the 1930s-the result of an aging population.

Much of the slowdown will be among whites, whose birth rate is projected to fall from 0.44% annually to 0.27% after the year 2000.

"Immigration, however, remains a powerful countervailing force to this general trend," the Harvard report says.

During the 1990s immigrants-most between the ages of 15 and 45-have accounted for a third of the population gain.

Most immigrants this decade have been nonwhite, and that pattern will continue into the next decade.

The immigration pattern, combined with higher population growth for native-born minorities, will boost the minority share of the U.S. population from 24% in 1990 to 32% in 2010.

Minority groups also have increased their homeownership rates faster than whites in recent years.

Between 1993 and 1996, an additional 460,000 Hispanic households became homeowners-an increase of 16.4% for the group.

An additional 352,000 black households bought homes during this period- an increase of 7.5%.

And the population of the "other" category, which includes Asians and Pacific Islanders, climbed by 182,000, or 11.76%.

During the same period, 2.4 million white households joined the homeowning ranks, an increase of 4.5% for the group.

Minority homeowners made up almost a third of the 3.4 million additional households that became homeowners in 1994-1996.

Homeownership rates still are highest among whites. In 1996 71.6% of white households were homeowners, 44.3% of black households, 41.2% of Hispanic households, and 50.5% of households categorized as "other" owned homes.

If current trends continue, most of the population growth will be in the far suburbs and beyond.

Between 1990 and 1996, the nation's 265 medium-density and 417 low- density counties grew the most-adding 6.6 million and 5.8 million new residents, respectively.

The nation's 38 high-density counties grew by 460,000 residents. Indeed, if not for foreign migration, which added 2.3 million residents to these areas, the counties would have shrunk, as 4.5 million people moved out of them.

Nonmetro counties added 3.6 million residents. Most-a total of 1.96 million-were already living in the United States.

The largest gains were in areas adjacent to metropolitan borders and in more remote areas that cater to recreational and retirement markets.

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