THE NATIONAL HOMEOWNERSHIP rate fell to 66.4 percent at the end of the first quarter—the lowest figure in 13 years—down from 67.2 percent a year earlier. And that flight from ownership has had a big effect on the multifamily industry's improving fundamentals. Many are now wondering if that shift away from ownership is structural (permanent) or cyclical (temporary)?

One popular belief is that the shift is largely behavioral, that the bloom is off of the rose of homeownership for many members of Generation Y. But this is likely a mistaken assumption.

“There's no evidence at this point to support the definitive thesis that young American households are permanently biased away from homeownership," says Sam Chandan, global chief economist for New York–based market research firm Real Capital Analytics. “History suggests that that bias is largely cyclical."

The desirability of homeownership changes as the housing market changes , according to Chandan. Once the oldest of the much bigger Gen Y group starts hitting their early to mid-30s in a few years, it wouldn't be surprising for home sales to rise again.

“It still seems like a pretty reasonable assumption that Gen Y households at some point will turn into their parents, just like every previous generation has," says Greg Willet, vice president at Carrollton, Texas–based MPF Research.

While the desirability of owning a home is likely cyclical, the good news for apartment owners is that the ability to finance a home purchase will shift in a more permanent way, with the housing finance landscape on the cusp of a structural change. The implicit government guarantee that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac enjoyed will be reshaped, so interest rates will likely rise, and down-payment expectations will also change.

“It's not that young American families don't anticipate being homeowners at some point; they just think of it being farther into the future,” Chandan says. “The fundamental structural shift in housing finance necessitates that.”