More than a dozen towns in southern New Jersey will remain eligible for a mortgage-lending program despite outgrowing the definition of rural.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture extended the eligibility through March for towns no longer considered rural. The agency had been planning to strip most of Cape May County and parts of Atlantic and Ocean counties from the list in keeping with growth observed in the 2010 U.S. Census.

The agency postponed changes to the program’s current eligibility list through March 2013, said Bob Rapoza, executive secretary for the National Rural Housing Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group.

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“For a lot of these communities, the only option they have for affordable housing is through the USDA,” he said.

This rural-development program offers buyers a rare chance to obtain a mortgage with no down payment.

Among the communities slated for removal next year: Egg Harbor, Hamilton and Galloway townships in Atlantic County; most of Cape May County, including Lower, Middle and Upper townships; and most of Ocean County, including Stafford, Lacey, Barnegat and Long Beach townships.

New Jersey residents borrowed $220 million this year through the program, which is available to low- and moderate-income residents.

“Losing that (program) would be extremely impactful for us and our clients,” said Kevin Weeks, a Realtor with Galloway Real Estate in Galloway Township.

“Half of our deals have been through the USDA,” he said. “Losing the program will make it more difficult for people to get into a home.”

Weeks, 39, of Galloway Township, said lower interest rates will do little to entice investors since few of their purchases require financing. But he expects to see interest piqued among would-be home buyers.

“We manage about 500 rental properties. A lot of them probably could buy their own home. Instead of paying someone else’s mortgage, they could buy a place of their own,” he said. “It’s such an unbelievably good time to buy.”

Homeownership rates in the United States are at their lowest point since 1996. Just 65 percent, or two in three adults, own their home today. For a large swath of the population, the dream of homeownership remains out of reach, particularly in rural areas, Rapoza said.

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