Home vacancies and the nation’s homeownership rate were nearly stable in the first quarter of 2011, according to U.S. Census data released Wednesday.

Still, the rate of home vacancies at 2.6%, the same as it was in the first quarter of 2010, remains well above levels seen before the beginning of the housing bust in 2005 when it hit 2% for the first time since before 1996.

The U.S. homeownership rate, which government policies had helped boost to the brink of 70% by 2004, sat at 66.4% in the first quarter, down a slight and statistically insignificant 0.7% since the first quarter of 2010.

Rental vacancy rates in principal cities stand at 9.8%, in the suburbs at 9.3%, and outside of metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) at 10.0%. The differences were not statistically significant, the Census Bureau said.

Homeowner vacancy rates, however, did vary by location. In principal cities, the rate stood at 3.2%, significantly higher than the rates in suburbs and outside MSAs, which had rates of 2.4% and 2.3%, respectively.

Regionally, the rental vacancy rate was higher in the South (13.2%) and the Midwest (11.0%) and lower in the Northeast (7.5%) and the West (9.0%).

The same pattern fit homeowner vacancy rates, with the South (2.8%) and Midwest (2.7%) statistically the same with the West (2.4%) and Northeast (2.2%) falling close to each other.

The report also included estimates of the total housing inventory in the U.S., showing an increase of 659,000 units, to 131 million units, between the first quarter of 2010 and 2011.

There was a decrease in vacant homes from last year by 99,000, according to the estimates. The number of vacant homes for sale climbed by only 2,000 year-over-year. Correspondingly, the number of vacant homes held off the market increased by 270,000, taking the total from 7,101,000 to 7,371,000.

At the same time the number of homes vacant for rent declined by 338,000 to just over four million.

Teresa Burney is  a senior editor for Builder magazine.