Homeownership Drops by Largest Amount Since Great Depression

By Jeanne Roberts

It’s probably no surprise that the number of individuals owning homes has experienced its biggest drop since the Great Depression, for rent an epoch usually defined as the decade between 1929 and 1939.

The figures are from the U.S. Census Bureau, and show that the rate of homeownership fell to 65.1% in April 2010, or 1.1% lower than it was a decade earlier. This is compared to ownership levels of around 70% in 2005, which means a drop of almost five percent in just under six years – bad news indeed for an economy still seeking equilibrium in housing and jobs. The 1930’s decline, by comparison, was 4.2%.

For a more tangible picture of home ownership, the number of privately-owned housing unit “starts” across the nation in 2000 was 1,569,000; a start is new construction. By 2010, this had declined to 587,000 – a hard-hitting housing recession mirrored in sales of manufactured, or mobile, homes, which went from a total of 280.9 (thousand) in 2000 to 49.5   in 2010.

As always, the decline was area-dependent, with home ownership in the western part of the  United States  falling to 60.5%, while the more stable  Midwest  remained almost steady at 69.2%. In the South, another traditionally stable if economically depressed area, the figure held at 66.7%. Along the Atlantic seaboard, the failure rate – because that is what these figures represent, the failure of homeowners to hold on to their homes or their home mortgages – was 62.2%.

The takeaway for those thinking about relocating and purchasing another home was the stability of home ownership in such states as West Virginia (73.4%), Minnesota (73%), and Michigan, Delaware and Iowa (all 72.1%). In  Ohio, ownership went from 216,400 in 2000 to 231,900 in 2010, proving that for all the failed attempts at home ownership elsewhere, some areas managed to buck the trend.

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But the real stunner continues to be  West Virginia, which also remained the home ownership leader during three consecutive censuses – 1980, 1990 and 2000.

The only unsurprising fact is the predominance of elderly who ended up staying in their homes, 18,742 as compared to 12,986 ethnic owners. This is because, as the recession tightened its grip, people remembered that homes were not financial assets so much as places for living, and those who had a home whose mortgage was largely or entirely paid were not about to sell at severely deflated home value rates.

Where did those who failed to maintain their mortgages go? Into rentership, boosting the number of renters across the country to record numbers. In fact, it’s easy to graph the impact of the recession in various areas of the country by charting the rise in rentals, and equally as easy to see how that rental status impacted incomes. In  New York City, for example, renters made up 69% of households, and almost half these renters paid 30% or more of their income in rent.

Overall, and in spite of economists saying that we have emerged from the recession, it is likely that the American dream of home ownership suffered a death blow when the housing bubble blew in 2006. Which is why it pays to maintain homeowner’s insurance even when things get grim, because the only thing worse than losing one’s home to an unsupportable mortgage is losing it to fire or other catastrophe and having nothing left with which to start over.