- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2000

A member of the Electoral College has been picked to head the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the next few years. President-elect George W. Bush last week nominated Mel Martinez to be HUD secretary. I am impressed with his personal story.
Mr. Martinez came to this country as a teen-age refugee from Cuba. Thirty years later, he holds the highest elective office in Orange County, Fla.
Orange County includes the city of Orlando, where houses last month sold on average for $107,000, according to the Greater Orlando Association of Realtors.
The refugee-turned-American-politician has been working closely with the Bush political machinery for quite a while, having served as co-chairman of Mr. Bush's Florida campaign. He also is a close friend of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's.
He was President-elect Bush's top pick for housing secretary, but a little clicking on some Orlando sites reveals that all has not been rosy in Orange County during the Martinez years.
InsideCentralFlorida.com, a Web site operated by broadcast partners WFTV Channel 9 and WMMO-FM (98.9), has a survey about Mr. Martinez.
The first question is: "Do you support Martinez's appointment as HUD secretary?" Some 31 percent of the respondents said yes; 59 percent said no.
The second question asks respondents to grade the county chairman. The ratings follow: A, 30 percent; B, 0 percent; C, 3 percent; D, 7 percent; F, 53 percent.
Obviously, this is not a scientific survey, and operating a county government isn't based on popularity.
According to some Florida press accounts, Mr. Martinez has faced the same issues in Orange County that municipal leaders of other burgeoning regions across the country are facing traffic jams, crowded schools and the pressure of development.
Growth definitely is an issue in Orange County. The numbers from the Orlando Economic Development Authority show why: Every week there are 238 new businesses, 1,171 new adult residents and 555 new jobs.
Along with such growth comes traffic. The region attracts 30 million visitors per year with the presence of Disney World, MGM Studios and various other attractions.
The good news is that if he is confirmed, we will have a housing secretary who understands first-hand what local communities are facing and how growth issues eventually affect the home buyer and seller.
Some of the initiatives Mr. Martinez carried out have been good for Orange County. He worked to reduce property taxes, increase construction capital for roads and preserve some open space.
However, he also carried out some strategies that some consider risky in the greater scheme of things, including halting housing construction around school jurisdictions where schools were crowded. Although this is a so-called "quick-fix," this strategy usually soon brings about escalating home prices, thus locking more people out of the housing market.
"School overcrowding isn't just the home building industry's problem, it is the entire community's problem, and we're all working to try to come [up with] solutions," Mr. Martinez says on the Orange County Web site.
"Nothing is easy about this, but we're looking at the possibility of more charter schools; we're looking at donations of land by home builders or developers in order to provide for school areas as a way of dealing with the problem."
He continues that he also is looking to see if overcrowding can be reduced by the way in which space is allocated or the way in which the county builds schools in the future.
"By working together, I think we are coming to a point where we're going to begin to find some solutions to the problem. There is no silver bullet, there is no magic answer," he says. "It's a very, very difficult issue, and it s not going to be resolved by any one measure or one means."
Thankfully, he is looking at a mix of fixes in Orange County when it comes to housing issues. Hopefully, he will do the same on a national basis.
While traffic congestion doesn't exactly come under the Department of Housing and Urban Development, housing construction has a direct impact on transportation issues.
Mr. Martinez believes mass transit is an issue more for state and federal governments. When asked about his work on light rail for the Orange County area, he responded that though mass transit was a way to solve Orange County's needs, "it has to be a plan that is heavily supported by the federal government, where most responsibility lies for these types of systems. The lion's share of the cost of building this system must be borne between the federal and state governments, and it must be done in a way that is smart as to where it goes and who it serves."
Hopefully, he doesn't believe that is the same for all jurisdictions around the country. The problem with relying primarily on federal and state money for all of these projects, as we have experienced in the Washington region, is that federal and state politicians have so many hands reaching out for the pork barrel that truly needy projects go undone without strong local support.
Sometimes to fix local problems, a locality must look inward.
Mr. Martinez's idea of simply halting housing construction in crowded areas is only supported by the very affordable housing in that area. Orange County will discover, as have other jurisdictions where home construction was halted to solve growth issues, that affordability will vaporize, and following it soon thereafter will be prosperity.
M. Anthony Carr has written on real estate issues for the last 12 years. He can be reached by e-mail (macarr@nvar.com).

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