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Bush pushes home ownership opportunities for minorities

PHOENIX -- President Bush traveled to two swing states with sizable Hispanic populations yesterday and talked up his proposals to increase home ownership opportunities for minorities.

"Not enough minorities own their own homes," the president said during a stop at a carpenters' training center in Phoenix, which followed a talk about home ownership at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds in Albuquerque. "And it seems to me it makes sense to encourage all to own homes."

In New Mexico and Arizona, Bush gave a modified version of what has become his standard campaign speech, including two topics his administration considers of particular interest to Hispanics: immigration and housing. He announced that the minority home ownership rate edged above 50 percent for the first time at the end of last year, and told audiences that his administration will continue to work to close the "minority home ownership gap," in which the percentage of white homeowners exceeds the percentage of minorities who own their own homes.

White House officials have frequently noted the continuing increase in minority home ownership rates, linking it yesterday with the president's call in June 2002 to increase the number of minority homeowners by 5.5 million by the end of this decade.

But the rate of home ownership has been rising for much of the past decade, pulled along by low interest rates. And critics argue that the president's focus on home ownership, a key tool the administration hopes to use in garnering support from Hispanic voters this fall, obscures the fact that nearly half of all minorities rent their homes and that his administration has called for sharp cuts in programs that benefit them.

"They have a very imbalanced housing policy," said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "There's been a shameful neglect of rental housing."

Administration officials dispute that. Bush has strongly backed what he calls an "ownership society," where people start their own businesses and buy their own homes. And Bush said in both New Mexico and Arizona yesterday that increasing the minority home ownership rate is good for the entire country. "When we're talking about home ownership, we're talking about for everybody," Bush said in New Mexico.

Representative Ciro D. Rodriguez, the Texas Democrat who is chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said the president should not count on his home ownership push to bring him Hispanic votes this fall.

"His own advisers have told him that the Hispanic vote must be a top-tier priority in his reelection campaign," Rodriguez said. "Too bad the same can't be said for the Hispanic people. The president's policy decisions have placed the future of the Hispanic community at risk."

The campaign of Bush's rival, presumptive Democratic nominee John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, also criticized the president's housing policies. "As George W. Bush travels to New Mexico and Arizona today to try to put a happy face on the nation's struggling economy, his administration's misguided housing policies have pushed the American dream out of grasp for many working families in New Mexico, Arizona, and across the country," campaign spokesman Mark Kornblau said.

Bush beat Al Gore in Arizona in 2000 by 6 percentage points but lost New Mexico by 366 votes out of more than 573,000 ballots cast. Hispanic voters are an important voting group in each state -- as well as in the battleground states of Colorado, Florida, and Nevada.

In Albuquerque, Bush highlighted how one Hispanic woman, Lori Benavidez, was able to move from renting to ownership through the administration's Section 8 Voucher Choice Homeownership Program, a rental program the Bush administration modified.

Bush met with Benavidez before making his speech and said she thanked him. "Lori said, `You made it possible,' I think she told me that," Bush said. "I said, `No, Lori, you made it possible. You're the reason why the miracle happened,' because she decided she wanted to follow her dream."

While the Bush administration has been promoting home ownership for Section 8 renters, it is seeking to cut the rental program itself. Bush's 2005 budget calls for a $1.1 billion decrease in the funding used to back Section 8 vouchers, which are distributed by public housing authorities.

The president yesterday spoke about the Section 8 voucher program in the past tense. "It was important to help people rent," Bush said in Phoenix, "but, remember, we want people owning."

Bush has proposed ending the requirement that housing authorities distribute 75 percent of vouchers to people at or below 30 percent of area median income.

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