HUD nominee to work for more home ownership

Cuban-born Mel Martinez headed for apparent confirmation as housing secretary after assuring senators on Jan. 17 that would help more low-income Americans buy their own homes.

Martinez, 54, the chairman of the Orange County, Fla., government that includes Orlando, promised to strengthen the Department of Housing and Urban Development, an agency some Republicans have sought to eliminate, and to make it more responsive to the nation's housing needs.

Democrats and Republicans alike on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hailed Martinez, who fled from Cuba as a teen-ager, as an embodiment of the American Dream and an excellent choice for the position.

"Mel Martinez fulfilled the promise of America," Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said, joining fellow Florida Democrat Bill Nelson in giving the nominee a glowing introduction.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, who returns as chairman of the committee when President-elect Bush takes office on Jan. 20, said he planned to schedule a vote on Martinez as early as Jan. 22.

Current Chairman Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., expressed his support for Martinez, an ally of Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and co-chairman of Bush's presidential campaign in Florida.

Unlike the acrimonious confirmation hearings for Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft several floors below, there was little hint of controversy in Martinez's two-hour hearing.

Martinez related how he was a "living testament to the promise of America," arriving at age 15 as a refugee speaking no English, living with foster parents until his parents could leave Cuba, and working his way through Florida State Law School. "I came to America with a suitcase and the hope of a better live. I know the value of homeownership because I have witnessed its great power throughout my entire life," he said.

He said that as a member of the Orlando Housing Authority in the 1980s he fought for the rights of public housing tenants and pushed for construction of affordable housing for elderly and single mother low-income households.

As HUD secretary he said he would continue efforts to reform the agency, which in the past has been plagued by mismanagement, and would pursue various proposals to increase homeownership among minorities and low-income Americans.

Those include Bush's proposals to allow low-income families to use federal rental vouchers toward homeownership, provide tax credits to financial institutions that match the savings of low-income earners, and offer tax credits to encourage the construction and rehabilitation of single family homes in distressed communities.

He also said the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, which some Republicans have sharply criticized, "has a very important role to play in community building." It requires banks to make loans in low-income and minority areas in which they operate.

Martinez praised the management reform efforts of his Andrew Cuomo, the current HUD chief. The General Accounting Office, an investigative wing of Congress is set to release a report upgrading the agency's performance rating.

Martinez assured Democrats that he did not plan to reduce manpower at the agency, that he supported more physical inspections of federally owned property and that he would work to secure an adequate budget so that public housing can be available to those who need it. The HUD budget, about $30 billion this year, has been a target of GOP budget-cutters in the past.