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If there’s one thing to be said about George W. Bush’s housing secretary, Mel Martinez, it’s that he’s no John Ashcroft. Unlike the gentleman from Missouri whose nomination for attorney general spurred weeks of protest and headlines, Martinez got about as much ink as a papermate pen, most of it used to describe his flight from Cuba in Operation Peter Pan in 1962, at age 15. When Martinez was finally confirmed on January 24, housing advocates across the country had sparse information about the man who will run the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Even local housing authority officials admit, “Nobody knows anything about him.”
While Martinez’s remarks during the confirmation hearings were predictable enough for a Bush cabinet member—he talked about “compassionate conservatism,” faith in God, and the need to run government like a business—his career as the chair of Florida’s Orange County governing board has been marked by some surprisingly progressive moves. In April, he ousted the local fire chief because more than 95 percent of the top-ranking lieutenants were white. He regularly railed against the Disney-based economy that pays workers $7 an hour. And he irked real estate interests by calling for a moratorium on development until schools could accommodate the population increase. As chair of Orlando’s housing authority in the 1980s, Martinez included tenants on local boards years before HUD required it.
But don’t mistake Martinez for anything but a loyal Republican close to Florida governor Jeb Bush. “He’s a little bit conflicted [about some aspects of GOP ideology] because of his own life story, and he does seem to genuinely believe that everyone should have a fair shot,” says Scott Maxwell, an Orlando Sentinel reporter who has covered Martinez for several years. “But he also believes in some pretty conventional Republican things. No handouts. Unions make him cringe. On abortion and homosexuality, he’s pretty traditional, but that conservatism is personal and does not affect his policy making. But when party politics are on the line, he’s always been a party player. If George W. tells him to do something, Mel’s not going to say, ‘Hell no!’ ”
Martinez may be relatively unknown, but what New York City housing advocates do know is that HUD-backed housing is essential and scarce. Most HUD dollars here pay for rental vouchers and public housing run by the New York City Housing Authority, where the waiting list holds the names of 110,000 families waiting an average of eight years for an apartment. NYCHA’s 180,000 apartments across the city account for 9 percent of all units citywide, and an even bigger percent of the city’s low-income housing stock.
But congressional Republicans, in particular former congressman Rick Lazio, imperiled that housing in a 1998 law that gives preference to the working poor over the extremely impoverished, forbids any growth in the number of public housing units, and requires able-bodied unemployed tenants to “volunteer” eight hours a month or be evicted. “That sounds very much like Mel’s way of thinking,” says reporter Maxwell.
Under the Bush administration, housing advocates fear further restrictions. “There are rumblings in the Senate from people like [Senator Phil] Gramm about the possible privatization of public housing and removing income limits altogether,” says David Jones, president of the Community Service Society, an advocacy group for poor New Yorkers. With welfare running out for about 37,000 New Yorkers in January 2002—and many more to follow—the specter of a retreating federal housing agency is alarming, he says.
Martinez said nothing about that crisis during his January 17 confirmation hearing before Gramm’s banking and housing committee. Instead, while promising to back programs to prevent lead poisoning and provide housing for the homeless, seniors, and the disabled, Martinez’s focus was on home ownership through HUD mortgages, which has little use in New York City. He repeatedly invoked his regard for partnering with “faith-based” groups and the private sector, aping his boss’s politics.
“The fact is that while he did take what was for this area a pretty brave and contentious stand against development, Mel Martinez is well liked by the business establishment of Orlando,” says Maxwell.”And he’s open about the fact that he was elevated because he is a metaphor for the great American dream. Look at this little boy who came over on a boat and ended up being a lawyer, buying a house. If you’re looking for a rainbow cabinet, gosh, is there a more inspiring story? He got here and saw the good Lord’s way to being a Republican.”