"Part of it is just our tradition," said Mayor Steven T. Sager, who is running for re-election on a platform of increasing home ownership. "A lot of Hagerstown's buildings were built before World War II. They were smaller. There were more apartments."
The city has many stable neighborhoods where, in some cases, one family has stayed in rental property for five generations, he said. If no one in the family has owned a home, they might think it's an impossible dream.
Another factor is the large amount of public housing and assisted housing available, he said.
A planner in Franklin County, Pa., speculates that commuters to Washington, D.C., might contribute to the problem. Those people might be seeking more affordable rents in places like Washington County, said Gary Norris, planner for the Borough of Chambersburg, Pa.
Washington County has the lowest home ownership rate of any county in the Tri-State area - 63.8 percent.
That mirrors the national average, Sager says.
The Tri-State area county with the highest home ownership rate is Morgan County, W.Va., at 83 percent of households.
Some communities have taken similar approaches to increasing home ownership.
In Chambersburg, Pa., a group of community housing leaders is putting together a pamphlet to guide people to housing services. The pamphlet contains information about everything from rental complaints to home-buying options, said Grace Burrows, Franklin County (Pa.) human services development coordinator.
The Chambersburg Community Improvement Association buys and rehabs houses to sell to low- and moderate-income families, Norris said.
That mirrors Hagerstown's program, which has helped the Joneses and 17 other families in four years find the American dream.
But much more is needed if Sager is going to reach his goal of boosting the home ownership rate to 50 percent of households in 10 years. That means that 2,100 apartments would have to be converted to owner-occupied residences.
It's a lofty goal considering Hagerstown's home ownership rate has hovered around 38 percent for the last 50 years.
The city is getting some free expert advice on possible solutions, said George Andreve, Hagerstown's community development manager.
U.S. Housing and Urban Development employees are studying Hagerstown's dilemma as part of a training course being given by the University of Maryland, he said.
Some of the best suggestions so far stress education of potential home buyers and financing through the cooperation of private lenders, he said.
The price of real estate is not out of reach for many renters, who might think they can't afford a home because they're living paycheck to paycheck and don't have the money for a down payment, Andreve said.
Those people might not realize they qualify for home buyers' assistance programs, he said.
"It is still a traditional, blue-collar, factory worker type town," Andreve said.