WASHINGTON -- Favorable financing conditions and higher incomes helped make it considerably easier for American families to afford homeownership in this year's first quarter compared to the same period one year ago, according to the National Association of Home Builders' Housing Opportunity Index (HOI), released today.

"Nearly 65 percent of all new and existing homes sold in this country in January through March of 2002 were affordable to families earning the national median income of $54,400," said Gary Garczynski, NAHB president and a builder/developer from Woodbridge, Va. "That's up substantially from 56.9 percent in last year's first quarter, and up a notch from the 64.1 percent of homes affordable at the end of 2001."

"Clearly, this improvement opened the door to homeownership for thousands more Americans, boosting housing's contribution to Gross Domestic Product at a crucial time for the nation's economy," Garczynski noted. "Every home that is sold generates thousands of dollars in home-related purchases during the first year of ownership."

Garczynski added that, despite the latest good news, the country still confronts a housing affordability crisis in which millions of Americans -- particularly minority and low-income citizens -- remain beyond the reach of homeownership.

"We applaud President Bush's recently announced initiative to address this critical problem, and look forward to working with the administration and Congress to lower the barriers to homeownership for all Americans," he said.

In this year's first quarter, Elkhart-Goshen, Ind., made its first appearance at the top of the affordability chart since 1995. With an HOI of 94.9, nearly 95 percent of homes sold in Elkhart-Goshen were affordable to families making that area's median income of $59,300.

On the flip side, Salinas, Calif., was the least affordable metro area with an HOI of 7.7. This means that fewer than 8 percent of homes sold in Salinas during the first quarter were affordable to families earning the area's median income of $53,800.

San Francisco, Calif., which has most often appeared at the bottom of the affordability chart since the HOI was instituted in 1991, improved somewhat in the latest index. A 7.5 percent increase in the area's median household income was responsible for lifting San Francisco two spots to the third least affordable market, with 9.2 percent of homes sold in the first quarter within the grasp of families earning the area's median income of $86,100.

As usual, the Midwest was the most consistently affordable region for housing, with 18 entries on the "25 Most Affordable Metro Areas" list, while the South had five markets on that list, the Northeast had two and the West had none.

Conversely, the West had 20 entries on the "25 Least Affordable Metro Areas" list, while the Northeast had five and the Midwest and South were not represented there.

The most affordable metro areas by region in the first quarter of 2002 were: Vineland-Millville-Bridgeton, N.J., in the Northeast; Elkhart-Goshen, Ind., in the Midwest; Wilmington-Newark, Del.-Md., in the South; and Boise City, Idaho, in the West.

The least affordable metro areas by region were: Portsmouth-Rochester, N.H.-Maine, in the Northeast; Ann Arbor, Mich., in the Midwest; Miami, Fla., in the South; and Salinas, Calif., in the West.