- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Setting a goal to help 5.5 million black and Hispanic families buy their first home by the end of the decade, President Bush yesterday urged Congress to close the "home- ownership gap in America" by approving billions in tax credits.

Visiting a black Methodist church in Atlanta, Mr. Bush said he will convene a White House conference charged with developing ways to eliminate or ease barriers that keep minorities from becoming homeowners.

"The difference in home ownership between Anglo America and black and Hispanic America is too big," he said. "In order to close the homeownership gap, we've got to set a big goal for America and focus our attention and resources on that goal."

About three-quarters of white Americans own their own homes, while less than half of black and Hispanic families own theirs.

Calling homeownership "part of economic security," the president called on Congress to fund fully the American Dream Downpayment Fund, which would set aside $200 million annually to help 40,000 families a year with their down payment and closing costs.

"The single greatest barrier to first-time homeownership is a high down payment. It is really hard for many, many, low income families to make the high down payment," he said. The fund "will use money, taxpayers' money, to help a qualified, low-income buyer make a down payment, and that's important."

The president called on the real-estate and mortgage-finance industries such as giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to increase financial support targeted to minority home buyers by as much as $440 billion.

Freddie Mac already plans to start 25 initiatives to eliminate homeownership barriers.

"Under one of these," Mr. Bush said, "consumers with poor credit will be able to get a mortgage with an interest rate that automatically goes down after a period of consistent payments."

Mr. Bush proposes giving developers nearly $2.4 billion in tax credits over five years to build affordable single-family homes. The White House estimates the tax incentive could result in construction of 200,000 lower-cost homes.

"That will help. It will help a lot to build homes where people can where when fully implemented, people will be able to say, 'I own my home.'"

The president said the "fine print" and legal jargon employed by lenders intimidates potential first-time buyers, which he hopes to change.

"We certainly don't want there to be a fine print preventing people from owning their home. We can change the print, and we've got to. We've got to be wise about how we deal with the closing documents and all the regulations, but also wise about how we help people understand what it means to own their home and the obligations and the opportunities," Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush said many Americans simply ignore the problem.

"There are too many people who say, 'My eyes are shut to the American dream; I don't see the American dream,'" Mr. Bush told the Pryor Road community in Atlanta, where a $68 million redevelopment program is under way.

But he said Americans are willing to help if asked.

"I believe there is such a thing as the American Dream. And I believe those of us who have been given positions of responsibility must do everything we can to spotlight the dream and to make sure the dream shines in all neighborhoods, all throughout our country."

Mr. Bush toured the Pryor Road area, where new mixed-income housing developments are replacing run-down and crime-plagued housing projects and strip malls.

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