The United Nations
Remarks prepared for delivery by
Special Session of the General Assembly
for an Overall Review
and Appraisal of the Implementation
of the Habitat Agenda
The Honorable Mel Martinez,
U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
New York City, New York
Thursday, June 7, 2001
Mr. President, Madame Executive Director, Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great honor for me to be here representing
the United States of America. I am the Secretary of Housing and
Urban Development, a member of the President's Cabinet - and I happen
to be a refugee to the United States.
The fact that I am a refugee is not so remarkable. The United States
is a nation of immigrants and refugees who, either searching for
a better life for their families or fleeing oppression, came to
our shores and helped build our nation. To be standing here today,
however - as head of the U.S. delegation - says a great deal about
freedom and the remarkable opportunities offered by participation
in a free society.
We call it the American Dream - the freedom to pursue
success and prosperity, however the individual defines it for him
or herself. But access to housing, equal opportunities in choosing
a place to live, and the right to own property and pass it on to
our heirs are certainly at its core.
As nations united through Habitat, we share the dream
of individuals leading full and productive lives, through access
to adequate housing, land, credit, and basic services. In the five
years since Istanbul, we have made remarkable progress toward meeting
An innovative program established in Santo Andre,
Brazil, has transformed living conditions, and brought hope to 16,000
residents who live in the poorest areas of the city. Santo Andre
has achieved its success through an alliance that brings together
local, national, and international resources, while making citizens
a key partner and ensuring they have a voice.
In Thailand, the government established a unique revolving
fund that provides low-interest loans for housing and other community
development projects. Today, Thailand's urban poor are building
networks and partnerships that are improving the quality of life
for residents in 53 of the country's 75 provinces.
My government applauds these and other efforts that
are translating the Habitat goals into real solutions helping real
people. I am proud to say that we have also made strides here in
the United States since we met five years ago in Istanbul. Today,
we have more than six million new homeowners, and the number of
Americans who have achieved homeownership is at an all-time high.
Americans who seek housing have access to a vast network
of support. Maybe I can best describe this elaborate system from
the perspective of the individual who epitomizes its success: the
The fundamental right to own property, including a
home, is a foundation of our society. Two out of every three Americans
own their own homes. We believe so passionately in the cause of
homeownership that every year, we celebrate one week in June - this
week, coincidentally - as National Homeownership Week.
Expanding the number of homeowners remains a national
priority, because we understand that homeownership is at the root
of good citizenship. It plays a vital role in creating strong neighborhoods
by turning short-term tenants into long-term community stakeholders.
In helping families build real wealth, homeownership creates financial
security and peace of mind.
Homeownership provides opportunities to build the
economic strength of a family, to also help elevate families out
Once they have built up equity in a home, homeowners
can use it to fund a child's higher education. Or they can access
capital to help start a small business, with the dream of creating
additional wealth - and further security. Eventually, they can pass
on their wealth from one generation to the next.
Having lived in one country where such opportunities
are cherished, and another in which they are denied, I have a special
appreciation for the homeowner and consider the growth in homeownership
to be one of the most important economic shifts of the past century.
No matter where they live, no matter their income, everyone should
have the opportunity to own their own home.
"Everyone" includes women. In the United States, we
support without question the equal rights of women to own property
and receive - or give - an inheritance.
Most new homeowners did not simply write a check from
a personal bank account. They had to finance their purchase. Therefore,
access to credit is critical, and the first of four cornerstones
of the United States housing system.
Over the past 35 years, we have enacted a powerful
set of laws to ensure that no American who can afford to own a home
is denied a mortgage. For this reason, the secondary markets are
key - perhaps the key - to the success of the U.S. housing system.
By stabilizing the mortgage markets, the secondary
markets provide low- and moderate-income Americans with lower housing
costs and better access to home financing. They help break down
the barriers to homeownership and affordable rental housing.
The federal government serves as housing's second
cornerstone, although its role is specific and appropriately limited.
The great majority of governmental decisions are made closest to
the homeowner, on the local level.
The federal government, operating openly and transparently,
does offer a supportive framework within which the housing market
operates. It fills in any gaps in the system by addressing issues
of unequal access to credit, discrimination, and the inability of
low-income families to afford housing. It provides programs and
tax incentives aimed directly at bringing everyone into the mainstream
Every citizen has the opportunity to help make the
rules at the local level. This is the third cornerstone of the American
housing system. Through local elections, public hearings, their
involvement in non-profit groups, and public-private partnerships,
individuals can help determine the decisions that affect housing
in their own communities.
As the fourth and final cornerstone, homeowners and
renters have a strong legal system to support them, one that ensures
their rights cannot be unjustly stripped away. The civil rights
protections extended by our Fair Lending and Fair Housing laws prohibit
discrimination in the sale and rental of housing based on race,
national origin, disability, sex, and family status.
While its role is vital, we recognize that government
does not have all the answers or a monopoly on compassion. President
Bush is committed to working with community-based and non-governmental
organizations - especially faith-based groups - to lift up the neediest
among our citizens.
Two days ago, I took hammer in hand and joined the
President in Tampa, Florida, to help kick off Habitat for Humanity
International's World Leaders Build. We support Habitat for Humanity
and its faith-based cousins wholeheartedly - they are helping to
instill in our citizens something that government alone cannot:
a sense of hope, and a sense of pride.
The United States is in many ways defined by the opportunities
it affords its citizens. This says something very powerful about
the benefits of freedom. And maybe it helps explain why the American
Dream compels us to share the harvests of our opportunities.
Within the next three decades, more than 60 percent
of the world's citizens will live in urban settings, most of them
in developing countries ill-equipped to handle the housing needs
of so many people. Our urban centers in the United States have faced
the problems of inadequate and unaffordable housing, and we have
decades of experience in creating solutions - not federal government
solutions, but solutions developed in partnership by local authorities,
private enterprise, and community organizations.
We are eager to share what we have learned, and we
continue to reach beyond our borders to form strong partnerships
with our global neighbors:
The expertise we gained in establishing our secondary
markets and promoting and supporting community reinvestment is now
helping other countries create their own housing finance programs
and ultimately expand homeownership opportunities.
For 30 years, the U.S. worked with the government
of Chile and its private sector to develop a successful housing
finance system. Now, through U.S.-sponsored conferences, workshops,
and technical assistance, other Latin American nations are learning
how to modernize their finance systems based on the Chilean model.
The lessons we learned as we breathed new life into
struggling American neighborhoods are helping to create jobs and
revitalize urban communities elsewhere in the world.
The continued urbanization of South Asia has brought
with it management challenges that my government is actively helping
to solve. We successfully worked with key cities such as Katmandu
to plan for and finance improvements in urban environmental management.
The knowledge we gained improving construction techniques
is helping our global partners build better homes at a lower cost.
In South Africa, USAID's Regional Urban Development
Office is focused on energy efficient housing and the need to bring
electricity to those who have historically gone without it. Our
work has been key in building alliances between national and local
governments and private entities.
These arrangements are hardly one-sided. Over and
over again, we have been the beneficiaries when other countries
developed improvements in urban management, new ways to preserve
historically significant property, more energy efficient technologies,
and other breakthroughs.
This expertise is invaluable, because for all our
progress, challenges remain for this Nation. We are redoubling our
efforts to close the homeownership gap for minorities, keep the
inventory of federally assisted housing strong and viable, and shelter
the homeless and lead them toward self-sufficiency. We are being
wise stewards of our natural resources as our cities grow beyond
their original boundaries. We are building strong schools, so that
"no child is left behind" in the new, global, information-based
"Like stones rolling down hills, fair ideas reach
their objectives despite all obstacles and barriers. It may be possible
to speed or hinder them, but impossible to stop them." These are
the words of one of my favorite thinkers, Jos� Mart�.
Despite the obstacles and barriers we sometimes find
in our path, my country shares with you a commitment to the "fair
idea" of secure, safe, and adequate housing for all. We have made
great strides, and our progress cannot be stopped, but until democracy
and freedom are truly allowed to bring out the best in all the world's
citizens, we should not rest.
As we work together in search of answers, let us recognize
that solutions dictated by government will not work on their own.
Instead, we must strive to expand self-sufficiency for individuals,
strengthen families, and empower communities to shape their own
futures and their own destinies.
This goal is good for our countries, good for the
international community, good for every individual who pursues a
Let it be our constant guide as we recommit ourselves
to fulfilling the Habitat agenda and carrying out the important
Content Archived: March 12, 2010