The Washington area is leading the nation in sprawl, with more building permits issued here from 1990 through 1997 than in any other U.S. metropolitan region, according to a report to be issued today by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

In its report, "State of the Nation's Housing: 1999," the Harvard center said that 330,000 building permits for homes were issued in the Washington area from 1990 to 1997, topping the 310,000 issued in the No. 2 city, Los Angeles. Atlanta was third with 303,000 permits, followed by Chicago with 276,000 permits, according to the report, which is the most comprehensive annual study of American housing trends.

The Washington area, the report showed, was issuing permits at more than twice the rate as Los Angeles: 47.4 permits for every 1,000 people, compared with the Los Angeles rate of 20.3 permits per 1,000 people.

"Sprawl is alive and well in America," said Nicolas Retsinas, director of the Harvard center. "Supply is one issue. There aren't that many houses left near cities. But the desire to have more space is another."

The nation's housing industry set records in 1998, with homeownership rates, home sales and the value of residential construction all hitting record highs, the report showed. The level of homeownership now is 66.3 percent, the highest ever in U.S. history and one of the highest in the world. The value of residential construction has gone up, with bigger and more expensive houses being built and then sold at high prices.

For the first time the study also looked at the correlation between work and housing. It cautioned that though homeownership in general is up, escalating house prices and rents mean that it's getting harder for the young and the poor to find affordable housing.

"U.S. housing policy has always been based on the premise that if you worked, you'd be able to afford a place to live," Retsinas said. The study showed, however, that in no state can a single wage-earner making $7 an hour -- the U.S. minimum wage is $5.15 an hour -- afford a two-bedroom apartment while spending only one-third of income on rent.

"It used to be that if you played by the rules, worked hard, you could afford a place to live," Retsinas said. "But even in the midst of all this prosperity, it just isn't so anymore."

Home buying by minorities is also up. The report found that minorities now account for nearly one-third of all first-time buyers across the country. But homeownership rates among minorities still lag substantially behind those of whites.

"We barely made a dent in disparities between whites and minorities," Retsinas said. "If we can't change the disparities in the good times, what does this mean for the bad times?"

Geographically, the report showed that the trend toward moving to the West and the South continued unabated. The South has a higher percentage of the nation's population than at any time since the Civil War. And more people live in the western part of the country than the East for the first time ever, the report showed.

Many of the new people living in the South and West are immigrants who tend to settle in "gateway communities," such as Miami, Los Angeles and Houston, Retsinas said.

A number of cities, including Washington and Baltimore, continued to lose population. The losses in the cities continued even as the surrounding areas gained in population.

The study also showed that for the first time since the 1970s, the pace of growth in the non-metropolitan areas of the country is approaching the growth rate of metropolitan areas, an indication that more Americans have bypassed cities altogether in their choice of where to live.