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The Role of Interest Rates in Influencing Long-Run Homeownership Rates

Gary Painter, Christian L. Redfearn
As a stated policy objective, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development seeks to boost the national homeownership rate to 70 percent by 2006. To accomplish this goal, they estimate that 3.8 million additional families be added to the ranks of U.S. homeowners. Furthermore, HUD estimates that the homeownership gap between minority and nonminority families must be reduced by a full 15 percent. Many policy instruments – both targeted and otherwise – have been suggested to increase homeownership. These range from low downpayment loans, greater access to credit in underserved areas, and interest rates subsidies. However, little is know about the efficacy of these measures to raise long-term homeownership rates. In this analysis, we focus on the role of interest rates on homeownership rates and the housing stock. In particular, we provide a critical review of the literature on the relationship between housing and interest rates in contrast to other determinants of homeownership and changes in housing supply. We then present our own estimates of the influence of interest rates on homeownership and housing starts. We find that interest rates play little direct role in changing homeownership rates. While changes in interest rates may affect the timing of changes in tenure status from renter to owner, the long-run ownership rate appears independent of interest rates. We find housing starts are, however, sensitive to changes in the interest rate. This implies that housing supply, or at least the timing of changes in housing supply, is sensitive to interest rates. It is though this mechanism that the stock of owner-occupied housing expands, though household formation and immigration may leave the ownership rate unchanged. We conclude by discussing whether other instruments, such as low down payment loans and improved technology for assessment of credit risk, may potentially be better suited to increasing long-term homeownership rates.