- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) — Focusing on the dream of home ownership for the nation’s minorities, President Bush yesterday credited his tax-relief program for being a key to driving the sizzling housing market to record levels.

“Because of tax relief, Americans have more to save, spend and invest — and that means millions of American families have moved into their first homes,” Mr. Bush said in his weekly radio address as he spent the weekend at his ranch.

In a swing through the Southwest on Friday, the president highlighted three of his economic policies he said can help nearly 400,000 low- or moderate-income families become home buyers.

One of the approaches, the American Dream Down Payment Act, will help low-income Americans afford the down payment and closing costs on their first home. Mr. Bush is asking Congress to provide $200 million a year for the program. He also proposes to make zero down-payment loans available to first-time buyers whose mortgages are guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration.

In addition, Mr. Bush is proposing a tax credit to encourage builders to provide 200,000 affordable homes over five years for low-income families.

These and other steps, he said, will push the nation toward his goal of adding 5.5 million new minority homeowners by the end of the decade, but housing advocates say assistance for renters is just as critical a component to addressing the housing needs of families with limited financial resources.

As Mr. Bush visited his state Friday, Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico said the administration is proposing cuts to key housing programs, such as the Section 8 voucher program that helps low-income people defray rental costs, “the first rung on the ladder” to home ownership.

Mr. Bush, in contrast, sees private-sector solutions, saying he has encouraged the real estate and mortgage finance industry to “join our efforts in closing the home ownership gap.”

With a big boost from low interest rates, the nation’s 68 percent home ownership rate is the highest ever, while minority home ownership is just more than 50 percent.

In his trip through the Sun Belt states Friday, the president met with Lori Benavidez of Albuquerque, N.M., a single mother who told the president: “I never thought the day would happen when my girls and I would be sitting in our own home. It is a miracle.”

Every time a family moves into a home of their own, “it fulfills a dream, and it shows faith in the future,” Mr. Bush said in his radio address.

Mr. Bingaman said the administration’s proposed budget zeros out the Hope VI program, aimed at revitalizing distressed public housing. He said the program got $574 million in fiscal 2003 and $150 million in fiscal 2004.

The Rural Housing program, which encourages ways to serve the housing needs of rural communities, also would be cut $24.8 million by the administration, Mr. Bingaman said, along with $10 million from the Native American Block Grant Program. It provides general housing assistance and encourages private lenders to provide home financing in American Indian country.

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