Martinez Could Boost Orlando HUD Aid Needed for Low-Income Housing

Article excerpt

ORLANDO -- Even though Orlando has the nation's worst record of home ownership, it has not been a high priority for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But things could change when Orange County Chairman Mel Martinez takes over as HUD secretary next year.

When Secretary Henry Cisneros oversaw HUD in the 1990s, his hometown of San Antonio received about $100 million in housing grants in two years.

"It sure didn't hurt" to have Cisneros over federal housing, said Melvin Braziel, president of the San Antonio Housing Authority.

Orange County typically gets about $11 million a year in housing grants. Central Florida's waiting list for low-income housing is so long that the federal agency has quit taking names.

On the surface, Central Florida may not seem as if it needs much housing help. The city has some of the most affordable prices in the United States, and the market has boomed with apartments and homes.

But since the mid-1980s, as the metropolitan area's service-based economy has forced a shift toward rentals, Orlando has moved further away from home ownership than any other city in the United States, an Orlando Sentinel analysis found.

With a work force dominated by minimum-wage earners, a third of Orange County families cannot even afford the going rate for a one-bedroom apartment.

The federal agency regularly hands out grants to states, cities and agencies for everything from AIDS awareness to housing rehabs. Though the agency was unable to supply information comparing grant distributions, a Sentinel analysis found that, compared with similarly sized counties nationally, Orange ranked in the bottom third on the funding list. Whether Martinez will pay more attention to Central Florida's needs remains to be seen. HUD expert Ron Utt, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said it's unlikely Martinez will use his new position to help solve Central Florida's growing housing problems.

"Most grants go out by formulas that largely favor places poorer rather than richer," Utt said. Other grants are targeted by Congress.

"It's actually more important [for an area] to have a well-placed congressman than a [HUD] secretary," Utt said.

But in San Antonio, Braziel said the competition for federal grants is so fierce that having a well-placed connection can be advantageous.

Whether Martinez can greatly influence future housing policy depends on his relationship with President-elect Bush and Bush's commitment to housing programs, Utt said.

Expectations for Martinez are already high. The ranking Democrat on the Senate Housing Subcommittee, John Kerry, D-Mass., said Martinez should bring new energy to HUD because he comes from a housing-challenged area of the country.

"I would assume he'd have a special sensitivity as a Floridian to the crisis in affordable housing," Kerry said. "There was a real void in this presidential campaign when it came to housing.

"And I think the policies President-elect Bush sets forward on housing and the tone he sets from the beginning will be critical in changing that, as will the energy that Mr. Martinez must bring to this position to put housing on the new administration's agenda."

Even though Martinez has had limited experience in the housing arena -- he has been county chairman since 1998 and served on the Orlando Housing Finance Authority from 1984 to 1986 -- he clearly has seen the challenge of not having enough affordable houses and apartments to serve Orange County, which in the past decade grew by 29 percent, from 677,491 residents to 874,218. …