Although the economy is stalling, the housing market is storming ahead. According to the latest figures, more than 5.1 million existing homes and another million newly constructed homes were sold in 2000. The housing industry expects 2001 to be a banner year as well.

But that’s not all. While white home buyers still outpace minority home buyers, more minorities are buying homes than they ever have. Historically low interest rates mean families who earn as little as 70 percent of their metropolitan area’s median income are able to buy homes.

Housing authorities nationwide are using Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to match down payments, provide low-interest mortgages and teach wanna-be home buyers how to close on their share of the American Dream.

The bottom line? Homeownership rose last year to an all-time high of more than 67 percent. With all that good news, it’s easy to forget that there are still millions of families who want to buy a home but can’t.

Why can’t they? Because demand during the latter half of the 1990s has pushed up housing prices to such an extent that people can’t own a home within any reasonable commute to their job.

For example, some people commute into New York City from their homes in Pennsylvania. Homeowners in Columbus, Georgia commute from smaller, more affordable towns in Alabama. It’s a 50-mile one-way commute from Lake Villa, Illinois to downtown Chicago, and even further to Waukegan, Wisconsin.

Home buyers keep going further out because that’s where the more affordable homes are being built. But the cost of land, construction, and infrastructure are soaring, which is why the average price of a newly-constructed home now tops $180,000.

To buy a home for $180,000, a family needs to earn at least $60,000 a year, if interest rates are 7.5 percent or below and if they have 20 percent ($36,000) to put down in cash on the home. If you’re getting a 3 percent down payment loan and financing your closing costs, you’ll need to earn closer to $75,000 per year, according to one loan officer.

Since the vast majority of home buyers are two-income couples, that likely means someone is earning $50,000 per year and their spouse or partner is earning $25,000 per year.

But for families earning just 50 percent of area median income, around $35,000 per year in expensive metropolitan areas, that $180,000 house is out of reach. The most they can afford is a home that costs $100,000. Which is still a lot of money in rural America. But it is buying less and less in cities, which, according to latest Census Bureau figures, is where the vast majority of Americans live.

There is an unwritten contract in this country, that if you work hard you can achieve the American dream of homeownership, says Nicholas Ratsinas, the former undersecretary for the department of Housing and Urban Development who now heads up the Center for Joint Housing Studies at Harvard.

“But for (thousands of) teachers, and police officers, and factory workers, they’re working hard and still not earning enough to live near where they work. And that’s not right,” he observes.

The politically incorrect term for these future homeowners is “working poor.” But it’s hard to think about the people who teach our children and protect our streets as not earning enough to share in the future they’re helping to create.

Next week: How manufactured and modular housing can help fill the affordable housing gap.