Housing act has changed rural America

Housing act has changed rural America By Dallas Tonsager, State Director for USDA Rural Development This year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the enactment of one of the most significant pieces of legislation passed in this century: the National Housing Act of 1949.

Signed into law by President Truman, this act has enabled millions of rural American families to achieve the dream of homeownership. It began as a program that allowed farm families to build homes on the land they were working but evolved into a housing program that now impacts every facet of rural American life.

The rural housing programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, begun with the passage of the Act in 1949, have played a key role in helping 75 percent of rural families become homeowners. Since its inception, these programs have helped more than 1.9 million families purchase their homes. Without this financing, most of these families would not have been able to obtain a mortgage to finance a home.

It is virtually impossible to imagine what rural farmsteads and towns might look like today without this infusion of capital. However, we know rural access to quality housing would have far more limited and the rural living standards nationally would be significantly lower.

Who are the families that have benefitted from USDA's direct-lending program for single family homes? They are families who contribute to their communities in the most significant ways. They include teachers, nurses, local police, firefighters � the entire scope of the rural population. They also include very low-income families who also make contributions to their communities. These families have incomes which average around $18,000 per year, but some earn as little as $9,000 per year.

Many children have enjoyed growing up in a safe, decent home because of the Housing Act. Many elderly couples � as well as widows and widowers � have been able to remain in their communities as a result of housing built through the Act. USDA's rural housing programs provide critical subsidies for homeowners and give them a boost on the road to prosperity.

Rural economies throughout the nation have been bolstered with the construction of each new home financed through USDA. On average, 2.5 jobs are created with each new home built. The wages and revenues generated for local and state governments also extend the impact of these federal dollars well beyond their initial reach.

But what does homeownership really mean for the millions of individuals who have benefited from USDA's home loan program? Testimonials are

plentiful. They include expressions of gratitude from those who had been homeless as well as those who had lived in unsafe and unsanitary housing. But what it really means is that someone has been able to say to him or herself: "this is my home and I am very proud that it is."

Homeownership instills a sense of self worth and optimism about the possibilities for a brighter future. People who own their own homes also generally take better care of their property and their community. The streets are often safer and cleaner, which attracts business investment and new jobs. The higher tax base leads to better public schools, another major draw for potential newcomers. The home mortgage interest deduction increases the consumer

power of home-owning families, who often pump that money back into the local economy by supporting local merchants.

In recent years, USDA has expanded its rural housing program menu. We now work with mortgage banks and community development corporations to

leverage more financing dollars and provide homebuyer education services. We also allow homebuyers to reduce the size of their mortgage by investing sweat equity in their homes, by working with their neighbors to build their house themselves. These new approaches also have enabled hard-to-reach families in more remote communities and more minorities now participate in these programs.

The new century will bring new challenges, no doubt, but we can continue to build on this highly successful effort and make homeownership a reality for everyone in rural America.

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