City Journal

Howard Husock
It’s Time to Take Habitat for Humanity Seriously
Corny, yes; but Habitat might soon be the nation’s biggest home builder—and its formula for housing the poor makes sense.
Summer 1995

It is easy to dismiss an organization that calls itself Habitat for Humanity. Worse, those who dislike Jimmy Carter can be put off by his high-profile volunteer carpentry in Habitat's cause of building houses for the poor, not to mention the fact that he once dedicated a Habitat house in Nicaragua with Daniel Ortega. Those skeptical of avowedly Christian organizations will be dismayed by Habitat founder and president Millard Fuller, the onetime Montgomery, Alabama, lawyer and direct-mail entrepreneur who starts each workday at the group's Americus, Georgia, headquarters with a mass devotion and is given to citing a biblical basis for the organization's no-interest loans to its home-buying families. (They are "partners in God" being helped by "Jesus economics.") Those who believe government alone can provide funds at the level necessary to create housing for the poor will view Habitat's use of private donations and volunteer builders as naive. And anyone skeptical about hype will be put off by the organization's propensity for media events: "blitz-builds" and "Jimmy Carter workweeks," in which legions of volunteers put up small houses for needy families in as little as six hours. One blitz took place outside Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium as part of the Super Bowl festivities.

But anyone concerned with contemporary American housing and social policy ignores Habitat at his peril. At the least, the sheer magnitude of this undertaking demands it be taken seriously. "There is simply no way," observes Millard Fuller, hissix-foot-four frame squeezed behind the desk in a makeshift modular office building at the sprawling Habitat headquarters complex, "that we will not be the Number 1 home builder in the U.S. within four years."

Do not bet against this possibility. Habitat is a $67-million-a-year enterprise, successfully raising funds both through direct mail and corporate and foundation solicitation. A sophisticated media department in the group's renovated brick headquarters on the main drag in Americus tracks press coverage. Habitat already has house-building chapters in over 1,100 American cities and towns, up from 350 in 1991; it has built 35,000 houses to date and is putting up 4,000 more a year, ranking it an estimated 14th among U.S. builders. Support comes not only from individual volunteers pounding nails and laying vinyl but from dozens of major national corporate sponsors such as Dow Chemical, Black & Decker, and Popeye's Chicken, which underwrite costs, donate tools and materials from storm doors and windows to foam insulation, and encourage their employees to volunteer their time. With 150 new local chapters opening a year, the possibility of building 10,000 homes annually—which would make Habitat (HFH to its insiders) the nation's top home builder—seems well within reach. Its goal of 20,000 homes built annually by the year 2000 is not out of the question. Habitat also operates abroad and is already the largest builder in such developing countries as Zaire and Malawi.

But it is not only for the sheer number of small, simple, low-cost new homes it is putting up that Habitat is noteworthy. Its methods are as notable as its product. It is, one might say, the Wal-Mart of American social policy. From its origins in the rural South it has spread nationwide, challenging a range of previous ways of doing business—in this case the business of housing the poor and improving poor neighborhoods. It has offered a new vision of what type of housing assistance should be offered those of modest means, emphasizing ownership, not subsidized rentals. It has a new vision, too, of how those who become its "partners" ("not clients or recipients," insists Fuller) are chosen. Need is a prerequisite but is not sufficient; screening by citizen boards, generally with close links to local churches, is also required. Finally, Habitat has shown that a nonprofit organization, combining volunteers as well as a professional staff, can succeed where government has largely failed in housing the poor—and in the process create a movement that is broadly and genuinely popular. More than 20,000 Americans now serve on local Habitat boards of directors. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are supporters—but so are Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich, who wears an HFH lapel pin.

Notwithstanding the involvement of Carter and the presence of some other liberal atmospherics, it's hard to avoid seeing the exponential growth of Habitat as anything but a socially conservative movement that has taken deep hold—and that aspires, plausibly, to spread much more widely. Although rural in its origins, Habitat has established beachheads in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Newark, Oakland, and Philadelphia, and is poised to undertake an "urban initiative" to expand that reach even into New York. The city that invented U.S. public housing and has, more recently, spent as much as $100,000 per apartment to rehabilitate old buildings in bad neighborhoods—often giving priority to those with the most serious social problems—will find Habitat to be quite different in philosophy.

That philosophy is very much defined by Millard Fuller, the complex, 54-year-old east Alabaman who founded Habitat in 1976. One might think of him as a New South version of Jacob Riis, the journalist whose exposes about Lower East Side tenements in the 1890s began America's march toward public housing. Fuller, like Riis, was distressed by the contrast between wealth and poverty epitomized by housing conditions. He deplored the Southern version of the tenement: the shack, typically a one-room shanty, built of rough boards and roofed with corrugated metal, in which, Fuller recalls, black sharecroppers lived on his father's cotton farm in Lanett, Alabama, in the early 1940s. Fuller dreamed of ridding the world of such "poverty housing": the first of his four books about the Habitat philosophy is entitled No More Shacks.

As Fuller has described it, Habitat is the culmination of a very sixties-style cultural journey—from a comfortable life as a young entrepreneur to a search for meaning on a rural Georgia commune. It began when Fuller, a lanky, ambitious natural salesman, had established himself as a strikingly successful young lawyer and businessman in Montgomery, Alabama. While still a law student at the University of Alabama, Fuller and partner Morris Dees (an important figure in his own right who went on to found the influential, left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center) had established a series of businesses catering to student needs and supplying products for local organizations to sell in fund-raising drives. Fuller and Dees Enterprises continued to grow after the principals' graduation—to the point that Fuller had earned his first million by age 25.

Despite his success—with all the trappings of a big brick house, a new Lincoln Continental, a cabin at the lake, and 2,000 acres with cattle and horses—Fuller found that his marriage was floundering: his wife, Linda, then trying to finish college, was also raising their two preschool children largely on her own. "Millard came home for dinner," she recalls, "but that was about it. After he ate, it was right back to the office until 11 or midnight. I liked having the material things, but after a while they were a poor substitute for love and companionship." In 1965 his wife's abrupt retreat to New York and her threat to leave him for good prompted a crisis of faith in Fuller.

Beginning to question his single-minded pursuit of money, he found himself returning to the teachings about wealth, and about relations between rich and poor, that he had learned in his youth as an active churchgoer and church youth group member. He was drawn to the "social gospel"—the view, put forth by Walter Rauschenbush in 1907 and commonplace in mainline Protestantism ever since, that the church has a role to play in addressing social conditions around it. In recent years groups like the National Council of Churches and the U.S. Catholic Conference have often acted as if the social gospel called mainly for advocacy on behalf of expansive government social welfare programs. By contrast, Rauschenbush had emphasized personal, private efforts on behalf of the poor, such as the settlement house movement pioneered by social gospel devotee Jane Addams, who went to "settle" among the poor so as to broaden her own horizons as well as those of new immigrants.

At last Fuller came to doubt whether wealth and a Christian life could coexist at all. "The emptier a person is on the inside," as he more recently wrote, "the more that person needs on the outside to compensate." After a tearful reunion with his wife, Fuller decided to sell off his interests in his businesses and "give the money away."

He spent the next two years as a fund-raiser for Alabama's historically black Tougaloo College. Then he happened—fatefully—to visit Koinonia Farm, a rural utopian experiment near the small Georgia city of Americus. Established in 1942, Koinonia was a most untraditional place for the South; its avowedly interracial character had led to violent encounters with neighbors. With a characteristically Southern populist religious distrust for wealth, it sought to develop a cooperative, largely self-sufficient farm for both religious, altruistic whites and black former sharecroppers. Although the community had dwindled by the late sixties, it still cooperatively harvested fruits and pecans and sold them via mail order to a network of supporters. Perhaps it was the combination of religion and mail order that drew the Fullers. In 1968 they decided to move to Koinonia. It was there that Fuller's range of guises—from social gospel devotee to hardheaded mail-order empire builder—came together in the concept for Habitat for Humanity.

Koinonia's charismatic founder, pacifist Clarence Jordan, planted the seed of the idea. He had a dream of building several dozen simple homes, financed by interest-free mortgages, on the Koinonia grounds for neighbors then living in shacks. With Fuller's advice, Jordan established the Fund for Humanity and raised enough money through a direct-mail campaign to build 11 houses. After Jordan's death in 1969, the Fullers stayed on and supervised the building of the houses. In 1973 they went to Zaire for three years and built houses in rural villages. Upon their return Fuller decided to take the idea nationwide. "Is God glorified," Fuller wrote, "when a family builds for itself housing that is vastly in excess of what the legitimate needs are for that family? Or is God glorified more when a wealthy family exercises restraint, builds more modestly for its needs, and uses the excess funds to build additional modest houses for less fortunate families?"

In September 1976, Fuller founded Habitat for Humanity. The organization grew slowly, building 609 houses by the end of 1983. In 1984, showing the same drive and self-confidence that had made him such an accomplished entrepreneur, Fuller drove the eight miles from Habitat's headquarters in Americus to the nearby town of Plains, where he persuaded Jimmy Carter to lend his name and donate his time to a small, unknown regional organization—the turning point in Habitat's existence. Carter's participation in a most atypical Habitat event—the renovation of an apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side—ignited the public interest in the previously obscure organization that sparked its phenomenal growth.

In devising the program, Fuller set out some inviolable ground rules: the houses must be well built but simple; they must be owned by the families who live in them; they must be built by both volunteers and the prospective owners themselves; the "partner" families must be screened by a "family selection committee" and must pay back a mortgage over 20 years, though Habitat would not charge interest. Finally, no government funds should go toward the actual construction—although Habitat does accept government land and subsidies for infrastructure projects.

Fuller argues that the conventional welfare-state approach to housing robs the poor of their dignity. "The idea had been for the government to do everything," he says. "First we gave them high-rises; then we just gave them money. They were nothing but clients, subjects. The people who devised these programs were people of good will. But they were basically saying, 'Here are a bunch of poor slobs who are barely human; let's just give them a few bedrooms and they'll be fine."' Fuller's religiosity led him to believe, in contrast, that "because it is the greater blessing to give than to receive. recipients must also be allowed to give.'

The Habitat ground rules are both traditional and revolutionary. In terms of housing policy, they represent a new way to supply decent housing at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Rather than using public funds, Fuller relies on the combination of modest size, volunteer labor, donated materials, and no-interest loans to lower costs to the poor.

In terms of social policy, Fuller's ground rules are just as significant. Habitat's screening of would-be home owners represents nothing less than a return to the nineteenth-century concept of the deserving poor, though Fuller would never use such language. His vision is truly that of a hand up, not a handout—the phrase Lyndon Johnson used to announce his War on Poverty. Habitat's assistance is meant to encourage and match the efforts of those being helped, rather than to provide as an entitlement based simply on poverty. All this is in the great tradition of American charity—not just of the social gospel movement but also of the late nineteenth-century "scientific charity" movement, in which local private "charity organization societies" assessed the character of anyone who sought relief and required public service work in exchange, and of the settlement house movement as well, with its emphasis on the middle-class values of thrift and cleanliness, and its hope of offering a venue in which rich and poor could meet.

For a family to become a Habitat home owner, it must first agree to help build someone else's home, as well as to contribute labor to its own. The average requirement is 430 hours, or over ten full workweeks, per family. Willingness to match the labor of more affluent volunteers is by no means all that's asked of a partner family. It must be able to make a down payment of $100, as well as a monthly mortgage payment, often as low as $150 or $200, over a 20-year schedule. Most important, it must gain the approval of the local Habitat chapter's Family Selection Committee. The selection process is long and often difficult, say those who have served such committees. A family must establish need based on criteria ranging from lack of plumbing to overcrowding. (Habitat, setting its standards lower than HUD, does not consider two children sharing a bedroom to constitute overcrowding.) A family living in a shack, a broken-down mobile home, or a dangerous public housing project (notwithstanding the fact that its physical condition might be up to par) can qualify.

But need is not enough. A family must also pass what some local Habitat chapters explicitly label the criterion of "character." For example, West Virginia checks for the following traits:

"Steadiness: Family has not moved more than three times in the past ten years without good reason. Couple has been married at least one year.

"Care of Property: Living quarters were neat for interview. Family takes care of property and does not deface walls. break windows. etc.

"Interpersonal Relationships: Parents appear able to get along with others and would be an asset to a neighborhood. Children are well-behaved. Supervisor at work indicates family members get along with others."

In choosing its first 20 families, this chapter rejected 60 others. Habitat, moreover, continues to meet with partner families even after the house has been sold to them—both to help them deal with the responsibilities of home ownership and, if necessary, to remind them that if their payment does not arrive, they will lose their home. Cheryl Appline, the executive director of the Habitat chapter in poor, mostly black north-central Philadelphia, makes no apologies about the strict enforcement of mortgage payments. "We must bring people into the world of real economic life. This is no giveaway." The group encourages upward mobility too. After only three years a Habitat family may sell its home, sharing whatever profit it realizes with the local chapter. (In contrast, federally subsidized single-family homes built through the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit require 15 years residency before a renting family can even gain title to the home.)

Habitat's emphasis on values and character in selecting its families is in sharp contrast to what might be called the entitlement view of assistance expressed in such works as Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward's 1971 book Regulating the Poor—a view that had helped set the stage for the vast expansion of AFDC in the mid-sixties. In this view, the poor are an undifferentiated victim group, surplus labor manipulated by the American economic system. They are no different from the middle class except for their lack of money. Millard Fuller, in contrast, is not shy about saying that "Habitat homes are not for everyone." And though staff members are skittish about drawing attention to the character issue—they emphasize that the organization is ecumenical and complies with all fair housing laws (indeed, fully 56 percent of partner families are African-American)—they acknowledge that they 40 target the working poor. Household income ranges from $10,000 to $21,000, meaning that Habitat home owners hold quite modest jobs. On a tour of Habitat houses in and around Charleston, West Virginia, I met owners who included a city garbage truck driver, a fast-food restaurant cook, a night-shift nursing home aide who also taught part-time at a Christian school, and a clerk at a convenience store. A Habitat census of its partner families reflects its emphasis on character: only a third of Habitat households consist of single-parent families. By contrast, 76 percent of public housing families nationwide are female headed.

Through its selectivity, Habitat has shown that it can be fiscally prudent to loan money to families of very modest means. Fully 89 percent of all Habitat families are completely current on their mortgage payments, a higher rate than for conventional mortgages. Even more impressive, since 1976 the organization's cumulative foreclosure rate has been less than 1 percent—a far better record than for federally subsidized programs for poor home owners, which in the late sixties and early seventies had foreclosure rates as high as 35 percent. Habitat's low foreclosure rate surely has much to do with the emotional stake families have in homes they've physically helped to build. Even Jimmy Carter, whose administration emphasized rent subsidies for the poor, recognizes that Habitat families develop a "new sense of pride, dignity, and determination. They feel they've accomplished something on their own."

The Habitat approach contrasts with that of the federal Community Reinvestment Act, which requires banks to make capital available to "underserved" neighborhoods, based on the presumption that worthy applicants had been denied credit because of their race or zip code. The law provides an incentive for lenders to make loans easy to get: banks want to impress regulators with the sheer volume of capital being loaned. But lending money indiscriminately is a poor investment for banks and for neighborhoods alike. Habitat, by contrast, uses legitimate criteria to distinguish between good and bad credit risks at the very low end of the market—without discriminating on illegitimate bases such as race. Helping families who can make a solid commitment to their community, and who carry that commitment out by repaying their loans, is a far better way to rebuild poor neighborhoods than pouring in capital indiscriminately.

Habitat builds mostly in poor neighborhoods as a practical matter. Since it needs to keep its costs as low as possible, Habitat mostly buys or receives land in areas where it's cheapest. Moreover, the organization has encountered opposition in affluent neighborhoods, fueled by the assumption that Habitat housing would be similar to public housing. "They envision a housing project, a giveaway program, problems with drugs," says Susan Sewell, a Habitat officer. "When they learn it's ownership, the anxiety level may go down." But because American neighborhoods are organized on the basis of social class, such opposition is inevitable. And it is not Habitat's goal to force the rich to live with the poor. "We don't believe in trying to go where we're not wanted," says Fuller. This, too, is a significant departure from government social policy of the past quarter-century, including a recent HUD program that attempts to disperse subsidized renters in affluent and working-class suburbs and earlier, quixotic efforts to build "scattered-site" subsidized housing in places like Forest Hills, Queens, and middle-class parts of Yonkers. Such policies have consistently inspired middle-class resentment because they reward lack of income rather than work.

Habitat offers the hope of building self-sustaining poor neighborhoods with a strong core of home owners. In Paterson, New Jersey, the local chapter has put up 44 single-family houses on vacant land in that city's North Side ghetto, in what a New York Times account calls "an effort to create an entire neighborhood." This is the pattern among urban affiliates. In Sandtown, an impoverished black neighborhood in Baltimore, as well as in north-central Philadelphia, local Habitat chapters have carved out specifically defined areas and begun the slow process of creating small outposts of owner-occupants within a desert of dilapidation. "Ownership is the only thing that stabilizes an area," observes Cheryl Appline, whose north-central Philadelphia chapter plans to build or renovate 50 new houses a year within an 18-square-block area. "Owners sweep the pavement and shovel the snow and ice. They have a commitment to the area. Rental is a revolving door with no incentive to take care of the property."

Herein lies another revolutionary concept: a poor neighborhood can be a good neighborhood. Just as in middle-class communities, committed owner-occupants can maintain their homes well and keep their yards and sidewalks clean, help police keep the neighborhood safe, and even help teachers make the schools work. The ideas of ownership and community cohesion are missing in the much-discussed community development corporations, commonly supported by government and foundations in inner cities, which emphasize the physical renovation of existing structures, often as subsidized rental apartments, without attending to the re-knitting of the social fabric that underlies any healthy neighborhood.

Despite its focus so far on rural towns and small cities, Habitat now aims to move in force into big cities—including New York, where its efforts to date have been pallid. In its recently announced "urban initiative," Habitat will have its national headquarters provide up to 70 percent of the funds for urban affiliates to build homes. (Ordinarily local chapters must raise construction funds on their own.) The urban initiative could direct millions of dollars to inner cities—and volunteer labor will stretch those funds further. Philadelphia's Appline boasts of more than 5,000 volunteers ready to help; she estimates their labor will reduce Habitat construction costs by 25 percent, saving her chapter some $290,000 over the next two years and allowing her to sell new two-story, three-bedroom row houses for $60,000.

Habitat's fund-raising is, in the tradition of Fuller and Dees Enterprises, well organized and high-powered. Recognizing that its good name makes it an effective vehicle for corporate sponsorship, it works hard to attract such sponsors by promising, for instance, to direct their contributions into metropolitan areas where they are making a marketing push or opening new branches. And it deftly capitalizes on the self-sacrificing image of Jimmy Carter, volunteer, to raise funds; Carter himself sits on the Habitat board of directors and personally solicits major donors.

None of this would matter, of course, if Habitat did not manage to build decent houses that the working poor can afford to buy. As the Wal-Mart of social policy, Habitat provides a Wal-Mart-type product-the housing equivalent of good, cheap, unfancy clothing. Typical Habitat homes are strikingly modest by contemporary American standards: 1,100- to 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom houses valued at $50,000. Contributed labor and materials bring the cost down to an average of $35,000.

But local governments multiply obstacles to Habitat's efforts to create low-cost, rather than merely low-income, housing. Housing construction in America is highly regulated by building and zoning codes, which can add significantly to the cost of construction. Habitat is pushing local authorities to question whether their regulations are necessary. It has locked horns with local authorities in south Florida over how thick the plywood it uses must be. Local officials are calling for five-ply thickness, in the name of hurricane safety; Habitat wants to save $10 a sheet by using three-ply wood, being willing to tolerate what it views as a minimal safety risk in order to keep the house within its target range. With some success, Habitat has urged local governments to reduce the fees paid for permits—a small matter for middle-class housing but far more important for a low-cost builder. It is currently embroiled in a dispute in Los Angeles as to whether it must build carports attached to its homes. Habitat wants to provide uncovered parking pads rather than adding 25 percent to its costs to build what its officials call a "house for a car."

Habitat's success suggests several questions. Why couldn't such housing construction simply be handled by private, for-profit firms, in the manner of most consumer goods? Or, conversely, if Habitat has been so successful through reliance on private donations, might it be able to accomplish even more with direct government support? And if Habitat helps the working poor, what does it do for the truly needy, those earning less than it takes even to own a Habitat home?

Doubtless private builders, freed from the kind of code, fee, and zoning requirements that Habitat opposes, could produce more housing for the working poor. But these onerous regulations arose because Americans have been uncomfortable with the idea of privately supplied, very modest housing for the poor. It seems exploitative for a developer to profit by offering the poor cramped quarters without amenities, even if such housing is the first rung on the economic ladder. Habitat's emphasis on ownership makes the possibility of such upward mobility more real than does life in the rented shacks and tenements that give private low-income housing a bad name. Habitat's success in making the ownership of very modest housing the first step of upward mobility for many may spur localities across the country to revisit their zoning and building regulations, ultimately making it easier for responsible private-sector developers to build low-cost, low-income housing.

As for government funds, Habitat could not function as it does were it to take them. Building to federal standards for publicly supported housing would price its homes beyond the range of most partner families; subsidies would have to close the gap. Volunteers would not likely feel the same imperative if they believed that public funds could substitute for their labor. Still, government has helped Habitat indirectly, chiefly through the donation and preparation of land, and may be poised to do the same on a grander scale. A House subcommittee has approved $25 million in indirect federal aid to Habitat; Fuller is enthusiastic.

But such help would have its pitfalls. Although Habitat is scrupulous about conforming to fair housing laws, an infusion of federal funds would inevitably place a spotlight on the subtle and subjective nature of its family selection process, laden with middle-class values-which, along with its zeal for low-cost construction, is the key to the Habitat formula. It may be that government can no longer distinguish appropriate from inappropriate discrimination. What's more, even though it may seem that only government can fund large-scale growth, Habitat has already grown phenomenally through corporate donations and direct-mail solicitation alone.

"The trick," says Fuller of government aid, "is to dance close to the snake but not to get bit." So far, so good: and perhaps Habitat can accept indirect HUD aid and maintain its independence. But, Fuller concedes, "all it takes is one lawsuit, no matter how little justification there is to it, to really tie us up in knots." A lawsuit directed at the organization's family selection process would be catastrophic. It may be that government could help Habitat most by figuring out how to get out of its way. Large-scale public support may be a temptation that this organization would do best to resist.

Habitat must resist, too, the notion that unless it houses even the poorest, most troubled welfare recipients, it is not really helping the poor. If the tragedy of American public housing-where the physical plant is often the least of the problems—has proved anything, it is that improved physical accommodations are not enough to uplift those at the bottom of society. To enter the mainstream economy, the very poor must move by small increments upward—with respect to both jobs and housing. Habitat, by providing a lower rung on the home ownership ladder to people of very modest means, also serves as a beacon of hope for those who cannot yet afford its homes. From the point of view of the projects, a nearby well-functioning neighborhood of poor but hardworking owners is something worth aspiring to.

Millard Fuller's books are filled with stories of the lives that Habitat has touched. True, they can be saccharine, but they're worth keeping in mind. One woman Fuller met in a public housing project told him that in public housing, "I feel all thronged away." A Chicago woman, in contrast, said that as a Habitat owner, "I now know how to put on a doorknob. I can fix a hole in the wall. I am getting ready to return to school, and I am looking forward to starting a new job. My children can now see life from a different view. Habitat has given me hope. I won't stop here; I will continue to move forward."

So, let's hope, will Habitat for Humanity.

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