WASHINGTON - The President's program is meant to recover a decade of lost ground in homeownership, pushing the rate past 1980's record level.

The homeownership rate had climbed steadily from 1940 to 1980, peaking in that year at 65.6%.

But as the decade wore on, homeownership fell. The income of young families failed to keep pace with the spiraling costs of buying a home.

Lifestyle changes contributed as well. As young Americans postponed marriage and families, the homeownership rate dropped.

The rate has edged up in the 1990s as interest rates and home prices have fallen. In 1990, 63.9% of Americans owned homes; by the first quarter of this year, 64.2% owned homes.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that demographic trends will push the rate to 65% by the end of the year 2000, barring a recession or significant increases in interest rates.

That translates to roughly 5.5 million families that will buy homes between now and then. The increase will occur largely because the population is growing older and homeownership rates go up in older groups.

With its new initiative, the administration wants to add another 2.5 million families to the ranks of homeowners, pushing the rate to 67.5%.

These families are mostly expected to be immigrants and members of minority groups, who have significantly lower homeownership rates than whites, as well as lower-income Americans of all races.

The administration's new initiative involves no new federal money. Instead, it pulls together existing programs by lenders, brokers, homebuilders, the secondary market agencies, and others.

The programs are intended to cut the costs of producing and financing homes as well as to lower discriminatory barriers.

Among the groups that have signed up as partners are: American Bankers Association, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (Acorn), Federal National Mortgage Association, Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., Mortgage Bankers Association of America, Mortgage Insurance Companies of America, National Association of Home Builders, and National Association of Realtors.

The new program aims to increase low-down-payment loans, streamline the loan settlement process, develop more-flexible loan underwriting guidelines, reduce the cost of building new homes, and provide homeownership counseling in every community.

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