UNITED STATES
 

Statement

by

Secretary Mel Martinez,
United States Department of Housing and Urban Development,

in the Special Session of the General Assembly for an Overall Review and Appraisal of the Implementation of the Habitat Agenda,

June 7, 2001


 
 

Mr. President, Madame Executive Director, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great honor for me to be here representing the United States of America. I am the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a member of the President's Cabinet - and I happen to be a refugee to the United States.

The fact that I am a refugee is not so remarkable. The United States is a nation of immigrants and refugees who, either searching for a better life for their families or fleeing oppression, came to our shores and helped build our nation. To be standing here today, however - as head of the U.S. delegation - says a great deal about freedom and the remarkable opportunities offered by participation in a free society.

We call it the American Dream - the freedom to pursue success and prosperity, however the individual defines it for him or herself. But access to housing, equal opportunities in choosing a place to live, and the right to own property and pass it on to our heirs are certainly at its core.

As nations united through Habitat, we share the dream of individuals leading full and productive lives, through access to adequate housing, land, credit, and basic services. In the five years since Istanbul, we have made remarkable progress toward meeting that goal.

An innovative program established in Santo Andre, Brazil, has transformed living conditions, and brought hope to 16,000 residents who live in the poorest areas of the city. Santo Andre has achieved its success through an alliance that brings together local, national, and international resources, while making citizens a key partner and ensuring they have a voice.

 In Thailand, the government established a unique revolving fund that provides low-interest loans for housing and other community development projects. Today, Thailand's urban poor are building networks and partnerships that are improving the quality of life for residents in 53 of the country's 75 provinces.

My government applauds these and other efforts that are translating the Habitat goals into real solutions helping real people. I am proud to say that we have also made strides here in the United States since we met five years ago in Istanbul. Today, we have more than six million new homeowners, and the number of Americans who have achieved homeownership is at an all-time high.

Americans who seek housing have access to a vast network of support. Maybe I can best describe this elaborate system from the perspective of the individual who epitomizes its success: the homeowner.

The fundamental right to own property, including a home, is a foundation of our society. Two out of every three Americans own their own homes. We believe so passionately in the cause of homeownership that every year, we celebrate one week in June - this week, coincidentally - as National Homeownership Week.

Expanding the number of homeowners remains a national priority, because we understand that homeownership is at the root of good citizenship. It plays a vital role in creating strong neighborhoods by turning short-term tenants into long-term community stakeholders. In helping families build real wealth, homeownership creates financial security and peace of mind.

Homeownership provides opportunities to build the economic strength of a family, to also help elevate families out of poverty.

Once they have built up equity in a home, homeowners can use it to fund a child's higher education. Or they can access capital to help start a small business, with the dream of creating additional wealth - and further security. Eventually, they can pass on their wealth from one generation to the next.

Having lived in one country where such opportunities are cherished, and another in which they are denied, I have a special appreciation for the homeowner and consider the growth in homeownership to be one of the most important economic shifts of the past century. No matter where they live, no matter their income, everyone should have the opportunity to own their own home.

"Everyone" includes women. In the United States, we support without question the equal rights of women to own property and receive - or give - an inheritance.

Most new homeowners did not simply write a check from a personal bank account. They had to finance their purchase. Therefore, access to credit is critical, and the first of four cornerstones of the United States housing system.
 
 Over the past 35 years, we have enacted a powerful set of laws to ensure that no American who can afford to own a home is denied a mortgage. For this reason, the secondary markets are key - perhaps the key - to the success of the U.S. housing system.

By stabilizing the mortgage markets, the secondary markets provide low- and moderate-income Americans with lower housing costs and better access to home financing. They help break down the barriers to homeownership and affordable rental housing.

The federal government serves as housing's second cornerstone, although its role is specific and appropriately limited. The great majority of governmental decisions are made closest to the homeowner, on the local level.

The federal government, operating openly and transparently, does offer a supportive framework within which the housing market operates. It fills in any gaps in the system by addressing issues of unequal access to credit, discrimination, and the inability of low-income families to afford housing. It provides programs and tax incentives aimed directly at bringing everyone into the mainstream housing market.

Every citizen has the opportunity to help make the rules at the local level. This is the third cornerstone of the American housing system. Through local elections, public hearings, their involvement in non-profit groups, and public-private partnerships, individuals can help determine the decisions that affect housing in their own communities.

As the fourth and final cornerstone, homeowners and renters have a strong legal system to support them, one that ensures their rights cannot be unjustly stripped away. The civil rights protections extended by our Fair Lending and Fair Housing laws prohibit discrimination in the sale and rental of housing based on race, national origin, disability, sex, and family status.

While its role is vital, we recognize that government does not have all the answers or a monopoly on compassion. President Bush is committed to working with community-based and non-governmental organizations - especially faith-based groups -to lift up the neediest among our citizens.

Two days ago, I took hammer in hand and joined the President in Tampa, Florida, to help kick off Habitat for Humanity International's World Leaders Build. We support Habitat for Humanity and its faith-based cousins wholeheartedly - they are helping to instill in our citizens something that government alone cannot: a sense of hope, and a sense of pride.

The United States is in many ways defined by the opportunities it affords its citizens. This says something very powerful about the benefits of freedom. And maybe  it helps explain why the American Dream compels us to share the harvests of our opportunities.

Within the next three decades, more than 60 percent of the world's citizens will live in urban settings, most of them in developing countries ill-equipped to handle the housing needs of so many people. Our urban centers in the United States have faced the problems of inadequate and unaffordable housing, and we have decades of experience in creating solutions - not federal government solutions, but solutions developed in partnership by local authorities, private enterprise, and community organizations.

We are eager to share what we have learned, and we continue to reach beyond our borders to form strong partnerships with our global neighbors:

The expertise we gained in establishing our secondary markets and promoting and supporting community reinvestment is now helping other countries create their own housing finance programs and ultimately expand homeownership opportunities.

For 30 years, the U.S. worked with the government of Chile and its private sector to develop a successful housing finance system. Now, through U.S.-sponsored conferences, workshops, and technical assistance, other Latin American nations are learning how to modernize their finance systems based on the Chilean model.

The lessons we learned as we breathed new life into struggling American neighborhoods are helping to create jobs and revitalize urban communities elsewhere in the world.

The continued urbanization of South Asia has brought with it management challenges that my government is actively helping to solve. We successfully worked with key cities such as Katmandu to plan for and finance improvements in urban environmental management.

The knowledge we gained improving construction techniques is helping our global partners build better homes at a lower cost.

In South Africa, USAID's Regional Urban Development Office is focused on energy efficient housing and the need to bring electricity to those who have historically gone without it. Our work has been key in building alliances between national and local governments and private entities.

These arrangements are hardly one-sided. Over and over again, we have been the beneficiaries when other countries developed improvements in urban management, new ways to preserve historically significant property, more energy efficient technologies, and other breakthroughs.

This expertise is invaluable, because for all our progress, challenges remain for this Nation. We are redoubling our efforts to close the homeownership gap for minorities, keep the inventory of federally assisted housing strong and viable, and shelter the homeless and lead them toward self-sufficiency. We are being wise stewards of our natural resources as our cities grow beyond their original boundaries. We are building strong schools, so that "no child is left behind" in the new, global, information-based economy.

"Like stones rolling down hills, fair ideas reach their objectives despite all obstacles and barriers. It may be possible to speed or hinder them, but impossible to stop them." These are the words of one of my favorite thinkers, José Martí.

Despite the obstacles and barriers we sometimes find in our path, my country shares with you a commitment to the "fair idea" of secure, safe, and adequate housing for all. We have made great strides, and our progress cannot be stopped, but until democracy and freedom are truly allowed to bring out the best in all the world's citizens, we should not rest.

As we work together in search of answers, let us recognize that solutions dictated by government will not work on their own. Instead, we must strive to expand selfsufficiency for individuals, strengthen families, and empower communities to shape their own futures and their own destinies.

This goal is good for our countries, good for the international community, good for every individual who pursues a dream.

Let it be our constant guide as we recommit ourselves to fulfilling the Habitat agenda and carrying out the important work ahead.