- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2000

When we talk of "compassionate conservatism" and policies aimed at revitalizing struggling neighborhoods, we must make increasing the rate of home ownership a primary focus. It is often home ownership that anchors the financial stability of American families and the civil stability of our communities. Our challenge is to make the American dream of home ownership accessible to all Americans.
In 1862, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law, he opened the American frontier to immigrants, former slaves and others seeking to make their own way on 160 acre parcels of free land. By this Act, President Lincoln further rooted land and home ownership into the ideal of the American dream.
A commitment to home ownership has shaped American society. Today, more than two out of every three Americans own their own home, the highest home ownership rate in our history. Part of that success stems from a bipartisan consensus in support of home ownership, whether it is through down-payment assistance programs sponsored by local governments or the federal income tax deduction for mortgage interest.
Deposit insurance and the Federal Home Loan Bank system provide avenues of funding for institutions with federal charters. Similarly, two other federally chartered institutions, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, make home ownership possible for more Americans by creating and maintaining an efficient secondary mortgage market to increase the funding available to lenders. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) has also helped more families purchase homes by lowering the amount required for down payment.
In addition, the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program provides flexible federal funding to local recipients, who select the most appropriate programs to fight poverty or spur economic development in their communities. Home Investment Partnership (HOME) programs are also key components to neighborhood revitalization. HOME makes grants available to local governments that provide affordable housing for low-income renters and owners through new construction, rehabilitation and property acquisition. Legislation introduced by Rep. Rick Lazio would make these programs more flexible and encourage the removal of regulatory barriers that often add to the costs of a home. I have co-sponsored similar legislation in the Senate.
For most Americans, the current system works. But we cannot be satisfied with the status quo. For too many families, the dream is still elusive. We must first continue on the economic policy course that Congress has steered over the past several years. However, more can be done to empower hard-working, low-income families to realize their dreams of home ownership and to revitalize our struggling communities. Home ownership strengthens our communities by increasing individual commitment and by allowing owners to build a foundation for personal wealth.
Sen. Joe Lieberman and I have worked together as co-chairs of the Congressional Empowerment Caucus on several initiatives aimed at bringing the dream of home ownership to many men and women for whom the American dream of home ownership has seemed out of reach. I joined Mr. Lieberman in introducing legislation to extend the availability of Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) to more low-income Americans. IDAs are special savings accounts that give low-income families a chance to accrue savings for education, job training, business start-up or the purchase of a first home. These dedicated savings accounts are opened at federally insured banks and other financial institutions. The federal government then provides tax credits of up to $500 per account to financial institutions to reimburse them for providing matching funds.
We also introduced the American Community Renewal and New Markets Empowerment Act. This comprehensive bill, which includes IDAs, creates economic incentives for investment in low-income communities and enhances educational, home ownership and affordable housing opportunities in those communities.
Gov. George W. Bush has also proposed an initiative to allow low-income families to use up to a year's worth of rental payments to make a down payment on a home of their own. Also, he has proposed an "American Dream Down Payment Fund," which would provide a matching grant to a low-income family that is qualified to buy a house but who cannot cover the entire down payment. In many cases, this assistance can make the difference on the margin and provide another family with the opportunity to achieve the dream of home ownership.
Home ownership plays a critical role in revitalizing communities. Expanding opportunities for more American families to reach this goal will strengthen our communities and have a powerful economic impact on this country. By protecting the current mortgage finance system, fostering a strong economy, and supporting targeted initiatives, we can make the dream of home ownership a reality for every American.

Sen. Rick Santorum is vice chairman of the Senate Banking Subcommittee on Housing and Transportation.

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