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NEW CENSUS BUREAU BOOK FOLLOWS 50 YEARS OF THE AMERICAN DREAM

SHARE NEW CENSUS BUREAU BOOK FOLLOWS 50 YEARS OF THE AMERICAN DREAM

Next time you stroll into your shiny tile bathroom with the stainless steel fixtures, plastic shower curtains and glossy glass mirrors, consider how fortunate you are.

Just over a half-century ago, on the eve of World War II, more than one-third of American homes had no indoor toilets and nearly a third had no running water. The early morning trip to the water pump or the outhouse could be an adventure in frozen fingers."It's really amazing," says housing analyst John Devaney, "how many young men went to war from homes that had no plumbing."

Devaney knows about such things because he is the author of "Tracking the American Dream - The First Fifty Years of the Census of Housing: 1940-1990," published by the U.S. Census Bureau.

His report tells a statistical tale of how Spartan the nation's housing standards were in 1940 and how much they improved when the war was over and young families began making up for lost time.

In 1940, the homeownership rate was 43.6 percent, meaning that most Americans were renters, often living in ramshackle dwellings that fell into disrepair during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Then came the postwar boom, the flowering of the suburbs and the demand for shelter by couples with children who needed a place to live.

By 1950, the homeownership rate had risen to 55 percent, to 61.9 percent by 1960, to 62.9 percent by 1970 and 64.4 percent by 1980.

"From the 1940s to the 1980s, we were on a roll, with at least 18 percent growth in the number of housing units each decade and a peak of 29 percent growth in the 1970s," says Devaney.

For demographic reasons, the homeownership rate declined slightly to 64.2 percent by 1990. Devaney blames the decline on the increasing number of households headed by women, who tend to have lower incomes, and on the surge of immigrants into California, Texas, Florida and major cities such as Washington and New York.

Now that downward trend seems to have reversed itself. A census survey found homeownership levels at 64.5 percent in 1993, a year of strong economic recovery and falling mortgage rates.

Among the findings in Devaney's report:

- In 1940, there were 19.7 million renters and 15.2 million owners. By 1990, there were 59 million owners and fewer than 33 million renters.

- By 1990, only 1 percent of housing lacked complete plumbing.

- Between 1940 and 1990, the West had the highest growth rate in housing units at 360 percent, followed by the South at 232 percent. Increases in the Midwest and Northeast exceeded 100 percent.

- In 1990, the Midwest had the highest homeownership rate, 68.1 percent, followed by the South at 66.2 percent.

- Married couples and male householders comprised 85 percent of the nation's households in 1940; only 15 percent were headed by women householders. Today about 28 percent of households are headed by women alone or with children.

- In 1990, renters paid an average of 26 percent of their incomes for housing costs. Homeowners with mortgages paid an average of 21 percent. Both figures are the highest on record.

"The big change over the years," says Devaney, "is that the government has done so much to promote homeownership. "In 1991, 39 percent of mortgages were held directly or indirectly by federal or federally backed agencies. In 1940, that figure was 13 percent."

It was so common in 1940 for individuals to serve as lenders that 26 percent of mortgages were financed that way. But by 1991, only 4 percent of mortgages were held by individuals.