PRESS CONFERENCE ON HABITAT BY UNITED STATES
Introducing the United States progress report on the implementation of the Habitat II Agenda at a Headquarters press conference this morning, Mel Martinez, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), underscored his country's passionate belief in home ownership as the core of the "American dream". His message, and the essential significance of the report, was that by pursuing democracy and freedom, that American ideal could become a reality for people around the world.
Mr. Martinez was presenting the report, which highlights trends and challenges facing United States cities and rural communities, in connection with the General Assembly's five-year review and appraisal of the Istanbul United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), currently under way at Headquarters. He said the report focuses on the progress trends and issues in the six core areas targeted by the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat): shelter, poverty, environment, economic development, governance, international cooperation and future initiatives.
The cornerstone of United States efforts to meet its housing challenges was the active expansion of home ownership opportunities. While that country generally enjoyed a large home ownership rate -- some 60 per cent -- it was true that certain segments of the population, particularly minority families and others in special circumstances, needed the benefit of greater opportunities. As part of its vigorous efforts to increase home ownership rights among minorities, the Bush Administration had proposed several important initiatives, including the $200 million American Dream Down-Payment Fund. That programme would provide assistance in securing initial payments for home ownership. The Government was also looking to expand its "Section 8" home ownership programme to help low-income families to overcome the initial costs of buying a home.
He went on to say that the Government was also proposing another programme, "Renewing the Dream", an initiative that would provide tax credits to those that would facilitate and encourage an increase in the production of multi-family housing. While he believed that those and other initiatives would be of great assistance, HUD also recognized that not everyone could be a homeowner. His agency was working with families that needed assistance with rental opportunities. It was also attempting to ensure the expansion of available rental housing as well as continuing its successful voucher programmes that had been a great help to many families. HUD's broad agenda also covered issues of growth management to encourage the input of representatives from local communities.
In response to a question on the down-payment plan, Mr. Martinez assured correspondents that the initiative was not a replacement for the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The programme was part of HUD's state, locality and home grant initiatives. He added that while organizations could participate under President Bush's "faith-based" initiatives, the down-payment plan was more typically geared towards local governments, which usually administered the grants. He also said that Congress was working on a solution for the issues facing FHA's Multifamily Subsidy Programme, which could possibly include supplemental appropriation to ensure that the programme could continue through the end of the year and complete all its projects in the pipeline.
As one of the first members of the Bush Administration to visit the United Nations, Mr. Martinez was pleased to have met with the Secretary-General and Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, to discuss his country's willingness to work closely with the Organization on advancing the Habitat Agenda and other issues. Indeed, he had been particularly encouraged by Ms. Tibaijuka's vision of what was needed and expected of the international community to create more and more housing opportunities for people around the world. He added that he was very encouraged by Ms. Tibaijuka's belief that the United States progress in the area of urban planning would be an asset to the deliberations of the wider international community during the special session, scheduled to run through Friday.
Mr. Martinez gave the floor to E. Michael Southwick, his country's representative at the preparatory meetings for the special session, to respond to several questions concerning the United States position on possible language concerning a right to housing that might be included in an outcome document. Mr. Southwick said that the United States continued to support adequate housing for all. The formulation on which that theory was based -- that adequate housing was a component of the right to an adequate standard of living -- had been drawn from language in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "We don't like the sloganeering aspect of the rights debate, which everyone knows is very big in the United Nations right now", he added. "There seems to have been a right created for just about everything you can think of."
That attitude, he continued, tended to create entitlements or situations that were legally enforceable. And while there could be legally enforceable decisions about many things, that did not necessarily create housing. "Economy, good governance, rule of law and democracy were the kinds of things that created housing", Mr. Southwick said. The language for any possible outcome document was currently being negotiated, he added, and it appeared that agreed formulations from the Nairobi preparatory meetings would be carried over without change. The United States was not saying that the right to housing was legally binding: its position was that through good governance, democracy, economic management and rule of law, conditions could be created where people could attain adequate housing. "The formulation that we would prefer is the one that's in the document now, which is drawn from language in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights", he said.
A correspondent asked what advice Mr. Martinez could give to governments of other countries that were struggling with economic difficulties and problems with democracy and good governance, but were still trying to provide desperately needed housing. Mr. Martinez said that there was an urgent need to create a stable legal system, favourable financial conditions so that a secondary mortgage market could exist, as well as the overall financial resources necessary to increase the supply of adequate housing.
He went on to say that the United States commitment to the Habitat Agenda was strong. The fact that his Government had chosen him, a refugee to the United States, to head its delegation, was indeed reflective of that commitment. He added that even Habitat itself was not in a position to create housing; what it could do was function as a forum for discussion of best practices and lessons learned that could bring about the conditions for all countries to address the housing challenge the world now faced.
Recapping several questions posed in Spanish, Mr. Martinez told correspondents that he had praised property ownership and the ability to transmit that ownership to future generations as one of the highlights of the American
housing system. Indeed, it had allowed for an emergence of wealth in families through the ownership of homes. He had also answered a question on the difficulties immigrants may face when trying to access credit. He explained that the United States concentrated on ensuring equal rights to credit, and while financial institutions could not be asked to provide credit where it was not prudent, the Government now offered home ownership training classes that provided financial services that could help people avail themselves of credit.
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