The percentage of households that owned their homes was unchanged at 66.9 percent in the July-September quarter, the Census Bureau said Tuesday. That's the same as the April-June quarter.
The last time the rate was lower was in 1999, when the rate was 66.7 percent.
For decades, 64 percent of American homes were owned by their occupants. That began to climb in 1995, with strong encouragement from President Bill Clinton and later on from President George W. Bush.
Democrats, including Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., pushed for mortgage buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to purchase more loans targeted toward low-income Americans. Republicans encouraged subprime lending to borrowers with weak credit and fought off regulation of the industry, despite warnings that many of those loans had predatory terms.
Homeownership hit a peak of more than 69 percent in 2004 at the height of the housing boom. But the housing bubble burst in 2006 and the rate has been declining gradually since then.
"They just assumed: The more homeownership the better," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal Washington think-tank.
A record number of foreclosures and tight lending standards are expected to keep pushing the homeownership rate down and it will eventually return to pre-1995 levels, said IHS Global Insight economist Patrick Newport.
The housing troubles have brought the government's role in promoting homeownership into question. Most analysts agree that both the Clinton and Bush administrations placed too much emphasis on encouraging homeownership - promoting and enabling loans to borrowers with poor credit and those with small down payments.
"The consensus is, in a lot of cases, it just makes sense for a lot of people to rent," Newport said.
About 18.8 million homes, or 14.4 percent of all houses and apartments, were vacant, according to the government survey. Without vacation homes, that rate would be 11 percent.
The number of vacant homes has soared over the past four years from about 16 million at the start of 2006. It has been hovering around 19 million since the end of 2008. There are around 131 million housing units nationwide, according to the Census Bureau.
About 2.5 percent of all primary residences were vacant and for sale and 10.3 percent of all year-round rental units were listed as vacant and for rent.
Banks have seized more than 816,000 homes through the first nine months of the year and are on pace to seize more than a million, according to foreclosure listing service RealtyTrac Inc.