WASHINGTON (AP) -- The American dream of homeownership is at its lowest point in 15 years, the latest evidence of a housing market still far from recovering five years after the housing crash.
New figures released Monday by the Census Bureau show the rate of U.S. homeownership fell in the first three months of this year to 65.4 percent. That's down from 66.4 percent in the first quarter last year.
The last time the rate hit 65.4 percent was in the first quarter of 1997. The rate peaked at 69.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2004, during the high-flying days of the housing boom.
Recent housing and economic data have been encouraging, prompting some economists to predict a pickup in housing this year. But few believe the U.S. will ever return to its mid-decade peak.
January and February made up the best winter in five years for U.S. sales of previously occupied homes, although sales fell in March. Still, a report last week tracking the number of signed contracts to buy a home rose to its highest level in nearly two years in March. That could point to improved sales over the next couple of months.
Still, a backlog of foreclosures is expected to come on the market this year, weighing on home prices.
Banks are stepping up foreclosures in about half the states after slowing sharply last year while five of the nation's biggest mortgage lenders sorted out foreclosure-abuse claims.
Many potential homebuyers are still holding off from purchasing a home. Despite recent job gains, unemployment remains high. Many buyers can't qualify for loans, and lenders are requiring higher credit scores and larger down payments.
And some who can qualify are hesitant to buy because they worry home prices will keep falling.
On a regional basis, the Northeast, Midwest, South and West all posted lower homeownership rates in the first quarter than a year earlier. The Midwest had the highest homeownership rate at 69.5 percent, while the West had the lowest at 59.9 percent.
Americans 65 years or older accounted for the highest rate of homeownership during the quarter at 80.9 percent. That's stayed pretty much the same going back to 2006.
Those under 35 represented the smallest group of homeowners, with a homeownership rate of 36.8 percent. That's down from 37.9 percent a year ago.
The Census also sliced the latest homeownership figures by race.
Non-Hispanic, white Americans had a 73.5 percent rate of homeownership, down from 74.1 percent in the prior-year quarter. Blacks had a 43.1 percent homeownership rate, down from 44.8 a year ago.
The rate for Hispanics was 46.3 percent, down from 46.8 percent.
It's probably not surprising that households with incomes equal to or greater than the national median family income had a higher homeownership rate (80.3 percent) than those who earned below the median (50.4 percent). But both sides of the income divide saw their homeownership rate decline by about 1 percent.
While homeownership is down, fewer homes and rental properties are empty.
The first-quarter Census figures show national vacancy rates for rental housing slipped to 8.8 percent, down from 9.7 percent a year earlier. Vacancy rates among homeowners fell to 2.2 percent from 2.6 percent.
By region, vacancy in rental housing was highest in the South at 10.8 percent, and lowest in the West at 6.3 percent. The rental vacancy rate in the Northeast increased from a year ago, while rates in the Midwest, South and West declined.
Among homeowners, the rate of vacancies was higher in the South than in the Northeast, but about the same as in the Midwest and West. Vacancy rates in the Midwest, South and West declined from a year ago. The rate in the Northeast was essentially unchanged.
All told, roughly 86.1 percent of rental housing and homeowner properties were occupied in the first quarter, while nearly 14 percent were vacant.