Homeownership Rates Experienced Biggest Drop Since Great Depression Last Decade: Census

During his presidency, George W. Bush spoke of his vision for an "ownership society," an America where anyone and everyone who wanted to could stake a claim to property has the possibility to do so.

Things haven't exactly gone to plan. In fact, for many, the past several years have been a terrible time to own a house in America. Home prices have plummeted, taking homeowner wealth with them. Simultaneously, foreclosures have spread into every corner of the market, kicking off feedback cycles of value depreciation and property abandonment.

The grim state of the housing market is well known. New data from the Census Bureau just provides a striking long view.

The Census figures show that homeownership in the U.S. fell to 65.1 percent by 2010, down from 66.2 percent in 2000. That's a decline of 1.1 percent, and although it might not seem like much, it's the biggest single-decade drop since the 1930s, when homeownership fell by more than 4 percent.

The 1930s, of course, were the depths of the Great Depression, when national unemployment was sometimes higher than 20 percent and families routinely packed up and moved to another part of the country in the hopes of finding work.

Today, with unemployment holding steady around 9 percent and economic growth having slowed to a virtual standstill, Americans seem increasingly reluctant -- or perhaps simply unable -- to make a major investment like a home purchase.

Housing prices have been declining since the economy staggered in the late years of the Bush presidency. Those falling prices discourage potential buyers from getting into the market, while at the same time erasing the wealth of millions of people who already own homes.

A nationwide rash of foreclosures -- expected to get worse before it gets better -- has only driven down property values further. And more and more Americans are now simply choosing to rent instead of buy, which could in turn lead to even greater price declines.

In spite of all this, multiple surveys have found that homeownership remains a priority for many Americans, suggesting that economic pressures are keeping people from buying homes they'd otherwise purchase.

Last month, for example, the real-estate company Trulia found that some 70 percent of the people they polled still view homeownership as a central aspect of the American Dream. A majority of them, however, said they're having trouble saving enough money for a down payment.

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