CRAWFORD, Texas — He has lived in government-provided housing for eight years now--first as governor of Texas, now as president--but George W. Bush has not forgotten the great American dream of homeownership.
On Saturday, Bush used his weekly radio address to launch a campaign he will pursue this week to help low-income Americans, particularly minorities, attain that goal.
Bush's initiative underscores the key role that the housing industry has played in the economy. It also focuses on the greatest potential growth area in the housing market: the purchasing power of minorities.
And by highlighting the need to help blacks and Latinos buy homes, the president may be seeking to bolster his administration's standing with two groups that traditionally have backed Democrats. Both as a candidate and as president, Bush has paid particular attention to improving his party's image among Latinos.
Bush is scheduled to promote his housing initiative, which requires congressional approval, for three consecutive days this week, starting in Atlanta on Monday.
On Saturday, he vowed to narrow the discrepancy in homeownership rates between white Americans and blacks and Latinos.
He noted that, while nearly three-quarters of all white Americans own their homes, less than half of all African Americans and Latinos do. "We must begin to close this homeownership gap by dismantling the barriers that prevent minorities from owning a piece of the American dream," Bush said.
He offered no new proposals to accomplish this goal. Instead, he touted measures in the budget plan he unveiled earlier this year, which include nearly $2.4 billion in tax credits to support the rehabilitation or new construction of up to 200,000 homes for purchase by low-income households over five years.
Bush's emphasis on his housing initiative points to his determination not to neglect domestic issues even as the war on terrorism and crises in the Middle East and South Asia consume much of his time and energy. The president is spending the weekend at his Texas ranch in part to think through a plan to revive the Middle East peace process.
His stop in Atlanta is clearly designed to appeal to African Americans. The city has among the highest rates of black homeownership in the nation. His schedule calls for a visit to Atlanta's Pryor Road area, where housing development is replacing dilapidated and crime-ridden strip malls.
Beyond a direct appeal to minorities, Bush's homeownership initiative also may resonate with struggling middle-class families that face being priced out of the booming market, experts said.
The centerpiece of Bush's housing program is a tax credit for builders who erect middle-income housing for homeownership, not for rental units. So far, it has not advanced in Congress.
In addition, Bush's plan would provide $200 million in federal grants to help an estimated 40,000 low-income families a year become first-time homeowners. Most grants would be less than $5,000.
"The single greatest hurdle to first time homeownership is a high down payment requirement that can put a home out of reach," Bush said. He also is seeking a record $35 million for a program that would provide low-income buyers with comprehensive information about the intricacies and pitfalls of buying homes.
Bush said his initiatives, if approved, would "help thousands of American families live the kinds of lives they had once only dreamed about.''
Housing construction clearly would be a boon to the economy.
The National Assn. of Home Builders estimates that construction of 1,000 single-family homes generates 2,448 jobs, $79.4 million in wages and $42.5 million federal, state and local taxes.
Homeownership has been a popular political cause at least since the 1920s, when Herbert Hoover, as Commerce secretary, became a vocal champion. But few administrations have followed through with concrete proposals.
In 1995, President Clinton set as a goal homeownership by about two-thirds of all American households by decade's end. Clinton's ownership target was achieved, said Nicholas Retsinas, who directs Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies.
But growth depends on the ability of minorities to buy their own homes, he said.
"Unless we find a way to reach out to minorities, to Latino immigrants and the children of Latino immigrants, we will not be able to sustain the national homeownership rate," he said.
"It's to [Bush's] credit he's making this an issue," he added. "It's not an issue that is very high on the Washington scene. It's not that high a profile."
The Harvard housing studies center says in a forthcoming report that the number of U.S. householders owning homes hit a record 72.6 million in 2001, 67.8% of the households. Since 1994, minorities have accounted for 40% of the gain in homeownership. Overall, minorities make up 25% of the nation's households and 17% of the homeowners.