- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2001

Homeownership is up across the country, to 67.4 percent the highest it ever has been. Yet demand for housing, government policies and American spending habits are combining to squeeze development more tightly than ever and possibly keep more people from realizing their dreams of homeownership.

How is this happening?

Consider first the growing demand for homes, which may cause housing prices to continue their upward spike, despite all the economic woes we think we're facing (at least this quarter).

The National Association of Home Builders (www.nahb.com) reports that this demand calls for the construction of nearly 1.8 million new housing units each year for the next 10 years, just to keep up. Yet during the past decade, builders were putting up just 1.66 million units per year.

Meeting the growing demand gets a little more difficult considering that the NAHB also projects that although the preference for homeowners to own a piece of their own property in the suburbs also will continue to edge up, government policies and simple economics are encouraging higher density in housing development, i.e, smaller lots, town houses and condominiums.

Why all the pressure on development? Simply, we have more people living in the United States than ever before, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Population in 2000 is up 13.2 percent over the previous decade. The population will keep growing the next 10 years, too.

In addition, over the next five years, NAHB expects members of the aging baby-boom generation to purchase more second homes as they start retiring and spending their IRA and 401(k) funds.

Meanwhile, affordable housing for the masses continues to be in the forefront of many analysts' minds. Rent keeps increasing, pricing many working families out of the elemental first rung of housing.

Figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau (www.uscensus.gov) and the National Housing Conference (www.nhc.org/nhchome.htm) say the number of low-income families facing a critical need for rental housing grew by 64 percent between 1997 and 1999. NHC classifies a family with critical housing needs as one that spends more than half its total income on housing and/or lives in a severely inadequate unit.

The NHC has joined with various other real estate associations to form the Coalition for Affordable Rental Housing to address the growing housing crisis for low- and moderate-income families. Other groups include the Mortgage Bankers Association, the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, the National Apartment Association and the National Association of Realtors.

This coalition has called for several steps to cross the gap between the demand for housing and the available supply.

One is to have Congress increase by 25 percent the base amount the Federal Housing Administration will insure for multifamily housing (with amounts adjusted for high-cost areas across the country). The National Association of Realtors says the increase of that limit three years ago enabled 40,000 families to buy homes.

This new coalition wants to see the same thing happen again to help offset the increases in land, construction and other costs.

Boosting the bottom-line loans available to consumers may help put more of them in houses, but we still have one more statistic that bothers me, and I'm not sure government regulation can help eliminate it. It is the rate at which most Americans are saving money. Actually, it's a negative rate. Even though we need more houses to be built across the country, Americans' saving habits may keep them out of housing more than the scarcity of affordable homes.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (www.bea.doc.gov) shows in its February report on consumer disposable income that not only are Americans not saving, they're spending their money almost as fast as they are earning it.

In 1996, consumers were saving about 5 percent of their monthly disposable income. That amount has been on a downward trend since about October 1996, to the point that consumers currently are going deeper and deeper into debt.

Personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income was a negative 1.3 percent in February, according to the report the same negative amount it was in January.

The craziest thing about this figure is that Americans aren't spending all they have because of a drop of income in the face of high bills. In fact,they actually made more money, but they kept spending it faster. In other words, consumers have been dipping into their savings to outspend themselves compared to same time last year.

It doesn't matter how many mortgage loan programs government agencies set up; without personal responsibility, housing will never be affordable.

Mr. Carr, a Washington-based writer who has reported on real estate issues for more than a decade, can be reached by e-mail ([email protected]).

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