The rate of homeownership in the United States reached the highest level in 15 years in the second quarter, according to government statistics.

In addition, the number of homeowners climbed to an all-time high of 66.1 million.

What has led to the end of the long drought in homeownership? One factor is certainly mortgage interest rates, which dropped in 1993 to 24-year lows and even now are comfortably low by historical standards.

But there are other causes as well. In a new book, "Showing America a New Way Home," James A. Johnson of Fannie Mae, the Federal National Mortgage Association, identifies five other factors:

*An unlimited supply of capital from all over the world.

*Greater affordability.

*Cost-cutting technology.

*The legal tools and the determination to end discrimination.

*A growing pool of prospective homebuyers, including aging baby boomers and immigrants.

The Clinton administration, meanwhile, has seized the high ground and is claiming credit for the recent rapid gains in homeownership, and its success story has become a campaign theme.

In announcing the latest ownership statistics in July, Laura Tyson, Mr. Clinton's national economic adviser, said the numbers showed that the administration's economic policies were working.

"The President's strong deficit reduction has helped keep mortgage rates relatively low, even as the economy has strengthened and job growth has boomed," Ms. Tyson said.

The publication of Mr. Johnson's book seems either astutely or fortuitously timed, coming as the Democrats roll out their artillery to shoot down the Dole-Kemp assault on the White House. The book could provide one more shell.

But who really deserves credit for the major factors in the increase in homeownership?

Certainly Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., can claim some of it. They have had a role in tapping global capital and developing cost-cutting technology - both of which affect affordability. They and the government have had roles in fighting lending bias. And the White House can arguably claim credit for low interest rates and rising incomes that contribute to affordability.

But the long stagnation in home prices, just now ending, has also contributed to gains in affordability, and nobody has stepped up to claim that prize. And the aging of the baby boomers and waves of immigration are clearly external factors.


If you were puzzled about the first sentence of this column last week, you are not alone. We inadvertently said a "narrowing" spread between short-term and long-term rates was stimulating the market for adjustable- rate loans. We meant "widening."

As the accompanying statistics and comment made clear, the spread between short and long rates has indeed widened in recent months, setting the stage for a resurgence in ARMs because of the favorable price comparisons.

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