Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I'd like to express my appreciation for your holding this hearing today and join you in welcoming Secretary Martinez to discuss the Administration's Department of Housing and Urban Development budget request.
Let me begin by making it very clear that I believe that Secretary Martinez should be congratulated for the good work he has done at HUD. Secretary Martinez took over an agency which was in disarray. Staffing cuts had been made by the previous administration to adhere to arbitrary staffing goals. Unfortunately, some of the agency's most senior and experienced staff was lost due to downsizing. The HUD Inspector General's Office referred to this as "the brain drain" and noted that serious long-term effects would be felt.
In addition, a series of management reform initiatives in the previous Administration moved and consolidated staff in new areas of the country. This unfortunately created enforcement gaps exploited by criminals who took advantage of HUD and took advantage of ordinary citizens. I'm reminded of a North Carolina saying that goes, "you can't fall off the floor" - and in some sense that could have applied here. Secretary Martinez had nowhere to go but up with such a trouble-ridden department, but he has clearly exceeded all expectations.
I have reviewed the General Accounting Office's January 2003 review of HUD. The GAO states on the first line of the first page of the report that, and I quote, "HUD has made progress since January 2001 in addressing identified weaknesses in its high-risk program areas and management challenges, but significant challenges remain." I look forward to this opportunity to discuss with the Secretary those significant challenges which remain, and assess the extent to which these will be addressed in the FY 2004 budget.
A top priority for the proposed budget is achieving the goal of homeownership for low- and moderate-income families. I believe this is a laudable goal on the part of this Administration. While the United States enjoys an all-time high national homeownership rate of 68 percent, there are sectors of the population for whom homeownership remains frustratingly unattainable. In fact, the homeownership rate for African-Americans and Hispanics is in the 40th percentile. This is an unacceptable disparity that we must work to change, for my friends and neighbors in North Carolina and throughout the country.
The benefits of homeownership for families, communities and the nation are profound. When individuals and families own their home, they establish roots in their communities and have a greater stake in the growth, safety and development of their towns and cities. It is through initiatives to further grow homeownership that we empower individuals and families by helping them build wealth and improve their lives.
While most of the Fiscal Year 2004 HUD budget is allocated for important programs such as rental assistance and public housing, I have always believed that programs designed to lead their beneficiaries to independence are the best use of taxpayer dollars. Increasing the rate of homeownership for Hispanic and African-American Communities is one such goal that is clearly demonstrated in the programs contained in the Fiscal Year 2004 HUD budget, and I am committed to working with Secretary Martinez and my colleagues on this and other related issues. We need to ensure that HUD becomes known first and foremost for its programs that improve the lives of America's families, and not for bureaucracy and inefficiency.