Housing Policy

PolicyCast: Building Homes, Allies for Affordable Housing

Episode 3 – 9/28/2020

Habitat for Humanity: Building Homes, Allies for Affordable Housing

Our guest for Episode 3 is Habitat for Humanity CEO Jonathan Reckford. He discusses his new public policy initiative, “The Cost of Home,” with PolicyCast host Kirk Willison.

Episode 3 Transcription

Kirk Willison: I’m Kirk Willison, host of the Arch Mortgage Insurance PolicyCast at a time when the stock market seemingly reaches new highs every week, enriching the well to do another set of Americans facing a far bleaker future. Nearly 38 million households can not afford their own home. And nearly half of those families are paying 50% or more of their income on housing. These families not only face housing cost burdens, but most will confront barriers finding a place to live near their jobs, enrolling children in safe and successful schools, locating and paying for healthcare. It’s a national crisis that local, state, and federal government agencies have yet to solve despite years of effort and the expenditure of billions of dollars. Now, one of the nation’s largest private home builders is determined to fix the problem. If it sounds impossible, you must not know about Habitat for Humanity’s remarkable record of accomplishment.


Kirk Willison: On this episode of the PolicyCast, we will hear about Habitats formula for success from Jonathan Reckford, its Chief Executive for the past 15 years. And we will learn why its staff and volunteers are trading work boots for dress shoes to walk the halls of Congress, advocating for affordable housing and safer communities. Jonathan is a gifted and transformational leader. Under his direction Habitat has grown exponentially and consistently ranks as one of the nation’s most trusted and admired charities by the American public. I’ll also talk to Jonathan about one of his latest ventures, authoring the book, Our Better Angels: Seven Simple Virtues That Will Change Your Life And The World.


Kirk Willison: Jonathan, thank you very much for being here on our third edition of the Arch Mortgage Insurance PolicyCast. It is really a delight to have you today.


Jonathan Reckford: Thanks so much, Kirk. It’s great to be with you.


Kirk Willison: Thank you, sir. How did you end up getting to Habitat? Had you had any experience building or any other connections with the charity beforehand?


Jonathan Reckford: So the answer is I had as a volunteer, but certainly had never expected to get to do this full time and my career honestly never made sense at the time it was, and I looked back, and all the pieces that turned out to be incredibly helpful, but the first half of my career was mostly in the private sector. I started out at Goldman Sachs and turned out I wasn’t really cut out to be an investment banker and went off and worked for the Olympics in Korea and coached the Korean rowing team.


Jonathan Reckford: But that was a pivotal year of just learning and growth. And thinking about the world differently. I came back, went to business school with the idea I would learn in the private sector, and then take those skills into the nonprofit sector, but not knowing how that would work. I started at Marriott and then Disney and spent most of the front half of my career helping start or grow businesses for big companies. And it was actually at Disney where I took my team out to do team building, and we helped build a Habitat house in Orlando, Florida. And that was probably 25 years ago. And was the first, my first hands on experience with Habitat. I had heard it and then went to Circuit City and helped take CarMax public and then was recruited to be president of a company called Music Land that Best Buy then bought. And I always thought I was going to eventually make the jump, and that next inflection point I went off, I decided not to stay on. I stayed to help with the merger and then left Best Buy and was looking for a nonprofit role. And that wasn’t as easy as I thought it was gonna be. And I’d always helped churches grow as a volunteer. And to my surprise, my local church recruited me to essentially be the Administrative Pastor to manage what had become a huge church. And I wasn’t looking to do that at all. And in fact, everyone I trusted from career advice said this was career suicide, but we really had a sense of this is what I was supposed to do. And it was while I was very happily working at the church that Habitat came calling. And if I could have named one job that would have been my dream job, it would have been Habitat, which really put all the pieces together. So that was 15 years ago, actually this week. And I feel very lucky to get to do this.


Kirk Willison: Happy anniversary.


Jonathan Reckford: Thank you.


Kirk Willison: When people think or hear the words Habitat for Humanity, there’s an immediate vision of an army of volunteers with paint, brushes, and saws and hammers, but Habitat so much more than that, isn’t it? And what are the other types of things that Habitat is doing?


Jonathan Reckford: Yeah, of course in right now, we are so heartbroken that our volunteers, all our armies of volunteers, can’t be out building with us, and we can’t wait until they can come back out, but it is only a piece of our work. And in fact, much of our scaling work around the world is done in a variety of ways. Here in the United States we do a neighborhood revitalization, which still includes our traditional home building, but is a holistic look in partnership at all the needs of a community and how Habitat can contribute into that more holistic community development. We do disaster response, both mitigation, trying to better prepare communities before disaster comes, and then helping rebuild afterward. We have some newer programs around aging in place, which is a big demographic issue in this country and helping, especially low income and vulnerable elders safely stay in their homes, which is very cost effective.


Jonathan Reckford: And we have critical home repair programs that go with that. Some of the most exciting work we’re doing is often very surprising to people, which is many years ago, we shifted the framing question from how many houses can we build, which was a really good question to what would it take to meaningfully reduce the housing deficit in each of the geographies we serve. Which is a more audacious and challenging question because it really forced us to think more systematically. What would it take to make the markets work better? So that low income families could improve their own housing conditions. And that really drove us more wholesale into advocacy, especially around property rights for vulnerable populations. It pushed us towards housing finance and trying to make the microfinance market start lending to low income families so that they could obtain a home loan to improve their house. And then the next step of that has been our Center for Innovation and Shelter, where we’re coming alongside investing with and training entrepreneurs who are coming up with better building products for low income families. So that whole market development part has been a big part of how we’ve scaled.


Kirk Willison: But, you even have a thousand stores, right?


Jonathan Reckford: We do. You know what, that’s another wonderful, hidden gem and another social enterprise. So one of the myths about Habitat, along with the idea that President Carter started it and runs it, which is not true, is that we give away the houses. And as you know, so well, we don’t give away houses, families just like any borrower have to demonstrate the ability, and then they take out an affordable mortgage and as they pay those mortgages back, those funds get recycled in the community and help other families have their chance. Another side social enterprise, our Habitat for Humanity restores. And these, we have over 900 stores primarily in the US and Canada. And these are stores that take gently used housing products. So if somebody’s moving or remodeling, we’ll take anything that can be functionally reused out of the house. So furniture, appliances, doors, mantles, cabinets, windows, everything. And we resell those. And then the funds go back in to fund our local affiliates. And that’s become nearly a $500 million business now that not only generated 140 million of net revenue for our local affiliates but also kept hundreds of thousands of tons of materials out of landfills each year. So it’s a really nice triple bottom line social enterprise.


Kirk Willison: You had mentioned that, and it really is not well understood that people are not given these homes, that they’re actually homeowners with a mortgage, and in most of these cases. How does Habitat prepare people for home ownership, including paying that mortgage?


Jonathan Reckford: I think the principles behind this are so critical and they’re a big reason why Habitat homeowners have done well even in tough cycles. And so the basic criteria to qualify to buy a Habitat house are that you have to be low income. We only serve below the market people who couldn’t qualify for a traditional bank mortgage. Second, they have to be willing to partner and for us we call it sweat equity. They have to put in hundreds of hours of helping build their home and their neighbor’s home, but also take classes in financial management and home maintenance. So by the time they close, they are really well prepared, and they have to have clean credit and do the hard work to get ready for home ownership. And then the final, as we mentioned, is the demonstrated ability to pay back that affordable mortgage so that they are then both, you know, part of the solution as well as their recipient,


Kirk Willison: The Habitat volunteers while they build homes, you’ve spoken really eloquently about so much more that is being built when someone has a home. How were their lives really transformed?


Jonathan Reckford: Well, if we start, you know, first at housing and then go deeper to home ownership. I think I’ve always wondered why housing wasn’t more viscerally important to more people in our country and world. And my observation, though it’s changed a little bit in the past year as we’ve seen affordability and as so many of us are working from home is that so many of us grew up in good housing. So we take for granted all the things that come with that, and what we see for the billion and a half people in the world who don’t have adequate housing, is housing is so deeply correlated to health, to education, to livelihoods, and even to a sense of identity and stability. And so what we know is when a child grows up in good housing, she stays healthier and therefore can do better in school, therefore can become self sustaining, and if you pull housing’s obviously not the only need, but it’s almost a prerequisite, if you pull housing out, then you don’t get all those other pieces. And the chances of succeeding go way down. We don’t believe everyone should be homeowners, but we do see enormous benefits both to the family and to the community of having home ownership. And what we see is it creates stability and stability is one of the biggest drivers of educational success and confidence. It also turns out to be important to the community, neighborhoods with higher ratios of home ownership have less crime, the families have an investment, a stake in what goes on in their community. And what we see is that community stability is a very positive thing. It also, for so many low income families, is a way of creating long term savings.


Jonathan Reckford: So we don’t think people should use a house as a piggy bank, but historically, and especially for low income minority families, that home ownership has been a way to create an intergenerational asset in a world where increasingly we are divided between those with assets and those without. So we believe home ownership is a critical piece of the mix. Not that everyone should be homeowners, but that home ownership is something still to be aspired to. And it’s kind of interesting when I hear critics of homeownership say that rentals are really better, almost inevitably want to ask if they own a home, they always do. So it’s sort of, it’s better for other people but most of us, and I’m blessed enough to get to own a home and it comes with life stages, especially when you start a family and want to sort of put down roots.


Kirk Willison: Anybody who’s been a Habitat volunteer remembers it, I think you know intently about the whole experience. And I’ve had the good fortune to build a Habitat home and in Los Angeles and in Dallas and in Boston and in 2016 with you, and about a thousand volunteers in Memphis during the Carter work project. The Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter work project.  I wish everybody could have had that opportunity where you’re building a community, not only of homes but you’re building a community of volunteers that stay with you. And in fact, two of the most important momentos in my office are hard hats from that event, one of them was signed by all the workers who worked on the home I primarily worked on, and the second is signed by Trisha Yearwood who I had the good fortune for one day in fixing hurricane straps to a home, but these are things that this is a memory that’s going to be with me for the rest of my life. How did the Carter work project begin? And what’s the long term vision for?


Jonathan Reckford: Well, that was a wonderful and hot week in Memphis that I remember well, and the Carters are amazing. So the beginning of the story was when they left the White House and went back to Plains, Habitat for Humanity was founded in Americus, which is just about 10 miles from Plains, and our founder wooed President Carter and came with a long, long list of things to ask for. And, Habitat was a tiny organization back then. It was founded in 1976. The Carter’s got involved locally in 1982, but everything really changed in 1984. President Carter was up for a UN meeting in New York and went running as was his habit. And he ran by a group of students trying to work on rehabbing a tenement house in the lower East side of Manhattan. And he made a comment that got picked up in the press that well we got to bring some people to come help with this. And of course, once the founder found out he thought that was an amazing idea. And a few months later, the Carter’s came up with a busload of volunteers from South Georgia and they spent a week sleeping in a church basement and working on this building in the lower east side, and the Carters slept in the basement with everybody else. And the world had never seen a former President of the United States do anything like this. And so that’s really when the world found out about Habitat, and that became the first of what has now been 36 years of the Carter’s involvement in Habitat. And there was no question really, they put it on the map, and I think their personal example of servant leadership has been so inspirational to so many of us.


Jonathan Reckford: And it’s been one of the great privileges of my life now to be part of 14 of those Carter builds. But I do think it’s just a bigger version of what the Habitat experience is all over the world weekend, week out. And I think the power of it in our often polarized and divisive world is when you’re out on that build site doing something appeals to everyone’s shared values suddenly that you’re of a different faith, a different gender, different race, those things start to blur and you get to have a sense of community that is so palpable and sometimes so rare. And I think that’s when I’m always amazed at how many volunteers thank me for the chance to come out and sweat and work so hard. And I think we all yearn for that sense of community where everyone is together, and everyone’s sort of the same on the build site.


Kirk Willison: A lot of people may not know your last name is international. Tell me what you’re doing with Habitat for Humanity international around the globe?


Jonathan Reckford: A lot of people don’t realize because our brand is so well known in the US and we do serve through more than 1100 US affiliates, so we are in communities all over the United States. And I love that because we have a huge housing need here, but the overwhelming majority of our work is done outside the US, we serve in about 70 countries and our primary work is done in low and middle income countries. So places like Ethiopia and Cambodia and Malawi and Haiti or Central America. Asia is our biggest region and then Latin and Central America. And then we have Africa and Eastern Europe. And so it is the principles are exactly the same, houses look different, the contexts look different. I talked a little bit before about the market development work, and we’ve been trying more and more to systematically impact the programs, but at the same time, it’s not instead of our traditional work because we still want to do that core community building work as well.


Jonathan Reckford: One of the saddest things with COVID is we can’t do our international volunteer programs now. And if you want your heart just to get, you know, broken and be lighted up in a whole new way, one of my favorite activities has been taking my children to go build in other parts of the world in communities. And it has just been a great joy, and there’s something about being in a community, working alongside the families that allows you to see a culture in a way you never could as a tourist. And so it’s a really powerful experience and going in for a week or two weeks you experience it in a different way. So I hope when the world is stable and such that we can do it again. I would encourage people to check that out. But most of our work is done by local community leaders in the country. And so in Egypt, we have an Egyptian staff who leads the work and some of it would look very familiar. We do a lot of interfaces and cross cultural work, but the core pieces are the same. it’s really about community building and upgrading, building new construction or upgrading housing to get it to an adequate standard for good living


Kirk Willison: Your 2019 annual report counted about 1.4 million people around the world who participated in building homes or advocating for affordable housing, or just raising awareness of the need for affordable housing. And that since 1976, 30 million people have had their homes either built or improved thanks to Habitat. Is there a secret to your success?


Jonathan Reckford: You know, I certainly personally thank God. I think you know it would not be possible without. I think that the secret has been, I really believe that sense of partnership that has engaged people and wanted people to come out. And it’s the sense of, as we have always talked about it, the hand up, not a handout. So it’s the idea that we try to do the work in such a way that both brings dignity and empowerment to the families and the communities in which we serve. And so we’re not trying to bring the answer or the solution, but rather come alongside people who have a vision for a better life for their family or their community, and think about how we can support their vision and, and give them the tools or financing or capability to upgrade their lives. And we see such power in that. And so I think in some ways that’s the deep secret sauce, which is not so secret. We happily give away.


Kirk Willison: We’re near all time loads in home inventory. We are in a situation where demand is as great as it ever has been in the United States for affordable housing, minority homeownership rates continue to lag white home ownership rates by about 30 percentage points. And it doesn’t seem to be getting much better. You decided that building homes wasn’t enough and that you needed to take a more assertive step into the policy arena. So you’ve created a multiyear program called the Cost of Home. And I wonder if you could walk us through the role and the vision of Cost of Home.


Jonathan Reckford: Absolutely. And you’re exactly right. We actually did the calculation about 10 years ago and we were growing fast, but we said, how long at our current growth rate would it take to actually solve poverty housing, cause our mission is pretty audacious. Everyone should have safeties and affordable housing. And so it was going to take over a thousand years and we decided that was unacceptable. So that really forced us into the policy arena. And of course, it’s complicated because we are a politically divided country and the world often. We are nonpartisan but pro-housing. And I think one of our strengths is we’ve always built strong relationships with both parties and we believe housing is not a democratic issue or a republican issue. And there are strong champions on both sides for homeownership, strong champions for housing. But, we did recognize that there’s a fundamental supply problem.


Jonathan Reckford: We have under-invested as a country in enough housing and we just aren’t building if you look at it. So I would call that market failure. And in a way, we were used to looking at a place like you know Ethiopia or Vietnam and saying they had market failure, they couldn’t build enough houses. In the US you could argue, we have market failure and can’t build enough houses. So we are trying to think about what would it take to form a multi-sector approach to build enough to meet the need. And we recognize that’s going to take the public sector, the private sector and civil society and nonprofit groups coming together. But it has to start with land use because land ultimately is at the heart of all of this. So as we look at Cost of Home, which is the first ever US advocacy campaign.


Jonathan Reckford: We had done an international campaign. We thought it was very successful called Solid Ground, it was all about property rights, especially for women and disadvantaged groups to give them the right to stay on their land, because if you don’t have the right to stay, why would you invest in upgrading your house? And so many of us take for granted that we can get a deed, or right, and Cost of Home, we’re actually advocating for the whole spectrum of housing, not just home ownership. And we think we need more of all of it. And we want to lend our brand to other housing organizations as well. And our hope is to do convenings we’re just in year two, Covid obviously was not part of the five year plan. But, I think it’s highlighted the need even more. And so what we’re trying to focus on are both as you mentioned the racial inequity in housing and the long historical injustices around zoning, and even federal mandates post World War II around segregating housing.


Jonathan Reckford: But then what would it take to create both the carrots and the sticks to meaningfully increase supply? And that’s what I’m really interested in. So we don’t get a token number of affordable units, but actually get a significant number of affordable units out of the ground and into production so that people can occupy them. And we think that’s going to take changing hearts and minds as well as changing policies and those go together. So access to financing is a big one, and we are just beginning to explore a large housing opportunity fund, which would create funding for nonprofits to acquire land or to acquire properties that could be then converted into affordable housing. We think that’s a big need. A huge piece is around federal funding, the reality is there’s no country in the world that has figured out affordable housing without some level of housing subsidy at the federal level.


Jonathan Reckford: We obviously spend a lot of it on the mortgage instruction. We do spend a lot on HUD, but only one in four families who qualify currently can get a housing voucher. And so we still have a big gap on the funding side, but a lot of housing as you know so well, it’s still gonna be at the local level. So we think you need federal, you need state and you need local because land use is really determined at the local level. And so much of warehousing can be. And what we’ve learned is more and more that It’s not only do we need more units, but we actually need more units in the right places so that we’re actually creating mixed income neighborhoods and communities of opportunity.


Kirk Willison: Have you become a little more optimistic? We’ve seen over the last course of the year in Minneapolis, Austin, some cities changing their local zoning, you know restricting and getting rid of some restrictions that once upon a time said, you know, only single family homes can be here. Is this a positive trend?


Jonathan Reckford: I think it is. I think it’s too early to call it a trend, but it’s encouraging that what I would at least call it is bright spots and a recognition that we have just have to break some of the myths because people actually if I’ve heard that about Habitat too, Oh, if Habitat comes in that’ll hurt property values, we’ve done study after study, the opposite is true Habitat homes increased property values they don’t decrease property values in the same way the idea that if apartments came into a community that’s going to pull the community down, just isn’t true. And so we need to get the facts out there, but also help people think about the overall quality of life. And I do think it’s interesting, the community I live in, in Atlanta has bad traffic. They did a traffic study. Well, why does it have bad traffic? Because all the low and moderate income families can’t afford to live there. So they all have to drive in, this is California in a nutshell. And so, you know, both environmentally, practically, and form a sort of social and humanitarian perspective, we’re all better off with a mixed income, mixed use approach to city development. But we haven’t designed in the last 50 years our cities to work that way.


Kirk Willison: You touched on COVID a little earlier, how have you managed through those difficult times?


Jonathan Reckford: You know, this is the toughest thing we have ever faced, I think. We’ve certainly gone through crises and big disasters, but you know, when I joined we had the twin horrific disasters of the Indian Ocean Tsunami and then Hurricane Katrina in the US and then Rita, huge disasters. But, at least the rest of the country or the rest of the world could then resource and supply and help with the rebuilding process. This is unique to have the whole world impacted at the same time. As I mentioned earlier, our volunteer work has been deeply impacted. We’re at the cautious beginning of reopening. Now in many places construction was considered an exempted critical activity. So many of our affiliates were able to do a little bit of work finishing houses or keeping projects going just with their professional staff and contractors, but not with volunteers.


Jonathan Reckford: And we could do that very safely. Some have just begun to bring back what I would call those core weekly volunteers, almost like staff that come in every week because they can be trained and safe, if you’re working especially working outdoors and with proper safety techniques, we think construction still can be very safe. And we believe that works. Our stores are largely reopened with all the new safety protocols. Though certainly, our sales volumes are down and so we think we can come back, but it’s going to be slow. And it’s so discouraging because of course, the need is greater than ever. And so anything that slows down production for us or all the other housing providers is a real negative at a time where maybe not paradoxically, I think COVID has made people think even more about how important housing is. So the housing market has stayed sort of super hot because those who can afford it are eager to get into more privacy, more space per person, better conditions. So I think the urgency has only gone up and we hope we can convert some of that urgency into will to build more housing for workforce housing. And you know, I think the term affordable housing sometimes doesn’t have a good brand. All of us want affordable housing regardless of our income, right?


Kirk Willison: One of the methods that you’ve used to do that is another that I’ve had a chance to take part in a couple of times since Habitat on the Hill. You’ve done this now for about 15 years I think it as you mentioned earlier it’s one and maybe the only times that I’ve ever gone up to Capitol Hill and been warmly received by Democrats and Republicans. I think the only one, maybe if you were an ice cream lobbyists that you would be given the same greeting yet at the same time every year it seems the federal housing budget is under threat of being slashed. Well, why is the dichotomy there?


Jonathan Reckford: I think it is that housing is expensive, so there’s no question. I think there are structural elements that fight all of the discretionary spending. So if we look at military entitlements and interest on the debt, those all are growing, which just leaves less room for discretionary spending. So housing has always competed with the other discretionary line items, and I think that’s a fight. I do think it’s a great strength that we are nonpartisan and that’s because that’s ultimately how to get real things done. You have to have bipartisan support in the messy dance of legislation. I loved it when I joined Habitat, we had President Carter, but we also had Jack Kemp on our board. And I thought that was fantastic because I adored Jack. He and President Carter would never agree on economic policy, but they both cared really deeply about making conditions better in our cities. And they cared deeply about affordable housing. And I would love as a society and at the government level, if we could do a better job of all agreeing on what we’re trying to accomplish, then we could fight about the how, but right now the partisanship is getting in the way of actually agreeing even on what we’re trying to get done. So we are trying to do advocacy through giving people better data, better information, convincing them. It is where we have a great strength of the footprint that we build in every congressional district. And so many members of Congress have come out and built with Habitat and seen firsthand the work, and so that helps. Now the next leap is can we get them from we love Habitat so we will support increases in investment in housing and we welcome a robust debate about the best way to achieve it. I think that would be great,


Kirk Willison: 15 years into the job. What keeps you up at night?


Jonathan Reckford: You know, I think the sheer size of the need and the complexity of aligning all the forces, it can be so slow and hard to make. You can work for years and years to get a major policy change or to get major financing done. I think of course, short term COVID because COVID is a deep inconvenience for me, but I can do my job from home. It is a nightmare for that family in Mumbai, the family in Cambodia, I was talking to our national Director in Cambodia and it’s not just COVID, it’s all the implications of COVID because that means now all the tourism has stopped. That’s a huge economic hit to the country. Then all the Cambodians who were working overseas lost their jobs and have to come home. All those remittances go away from the country. So on top of Covid, you’ve got an economic disaster that may cost us 10 or 20 years of positive development progress globally. So that’s the most upsetting and here in the US we’re seeing that same disparate impact. So the knowledge workers who can work from home it’s not what we want, but it’s okay. For those service frontline workers who can’t eat and can’t take care of their families if they’re not out working, this is such a deeper threat. We’re definitely seeing a disparate impact on minorities and low income families.


Kirk Willison: The flip side of that, that question after a fitful night of sleep, what gets you up in the morning to get going?


Jonathan Reckford: You know it’s the part I miss most about working at home is for me, it’s all about the families. And so when I get to go out and spend time with the children who now get to grow up in safe, decent housing, or even better when you get to talk to people who got to grow up in good housing and see what they have done with their lives. I had a lovely time. A few weeks ago, we did a webinar with three professional athletes who grew up in Habitat homes and a woman from the US national soccer team, an NBA player, and an NFL player. And those are the days you think, and they talked so compellingly about what that’s stability and what that home did to give them a foundation from which to rise. And I think those are the stories that fuel me and get me out of bed every day excited.


Kirk Willison: Jonathan, you’ve written a new book, Our Better Angels: Seven Simple Virtues That Will Change Your Life. Full disclosure is my wife gave me the book for Christmas. You were kind enough to personalize it for me earlier this year. What inspired you to write it?


Jonathan Reckford: You much of the conversation we’ve had was at the heart of it, but it really came from a conversation with President Carter was the very beginning, but in some ways, it was a response to some of the polarization and rancor that we see in our communities and in our media. And, we did an op-ed with President Carter. If you remember, a few years ago after Hurricane Harvey, which was hit so hard in Houston, and then we had Maria and Irma back-to-back and a huge amount of damage. And one of the comments was there was a beautiful story of all these families coming together. And there was a picture of the paper of this human chain of people actually helping a vulnerable family across the floodwaters into a giant dump truck. And we’re talking about it, and President Carter was talking about how after a disaster, you see these amazing examples of neighbor helping neighbor and people doing sacrificial things to go and make things better. And then the question of course is, why can’t we do that when there’s not a disaster? You know, why isn’t that our default position in terms of service and help. And that was the genesis of the book, and that led into thinking through, and of course, it’s just telling stories of amazing people through the lens of Habitat, changing their homes, their family’s lives, their community’s lives.

Kirk Willison: There is throughout the book, there are stories, anecdotes of people whose lives have been changed through their connection to Habitat. Do you have a favorite?


Jonathan Reckford: I think possibly my favorite story is my friend Boris, and he is just one of those human beings that makes the world better. And I met Boris a number of years ago he was chair of the board of our local affiliate in Charlotte. And Boris had a rough start. He grew up in Charlotte. He lived in a really tough neighborhood and whatever city you live in for your watchers, think about one of those places. His neighborhood was called the hole. They had no indoor plumbing, there were gunshots, there was violence. There were people being killed and a really rough place. And Boris went to school, was not doing well, he was acting out, he was struggling in first grade, and he was one of those children who could have been written off. And he told me everything changed when he was in third grade, and his mom qualified to buy a Habitat house.


Jonathan Reckford: And they moved from the hole to optimist park. And I love the imagery of that. And it turned out Boris was actually a really bright kid. He just didn’t have any of the stability or the foundation, no place to study, all of those things. He had some really good mentors. He ends up getting a full scholarship to Davidson College and gets an MBA. After a short career in banking, he goes into affordable housing and giving back. And now he is working helping lead a large senior’s community and doing senior housing development. And he is one of those people that makes the world just light up. And he is actually, as far as we know, the first person who grew up in a Habitat house to serve on our international board of directors. And I love that story, but it also is the counterpart of that is think of all the Boris’s out there and all the little girls out there who have so much potential, and we’re just given a chance to grow into all the God intended for them. And so I’m trying to focus more on those stories, and not only they got a house, but what happens because of having a home.


Kirk Willison:  There’s a wonderful passage in the introduction of your book that speaks to our humanity. And I wondered if you could read it for us.


Jonathan Reckford: And this goes very much the heart of what we were talking about. “When the water’s coming up, and your neighbor arrives by boat to rescue you. You don’t ask whether they are Christian or not, gay or straight, or who they voted for in the presidential election. You don’t care what they look like or how much money they make, you jump in the boat and say thank you. You realize that there are people who care about you for no other reason than you are their fellow human being. You remember next time the water rises what your neighbor did for you, and you decide you’ll do the same for someone else in need. Sometimes it takes a crisis to get us to pay attention to our shared humanity. Crises can be great reminders of what we can accomplish when we work together.”


Kirk Willison: Jonathan Reckford, thank you very much for the time today. It’s really been an honor, a privilege to have a chance to interview you. I wish you all the continued success and Habitat, and I look forward to another opportunity to swing a hammer with you.


Jonathan Reckford: Would love that, Kirk. Thanks so much for having me on great to be with you.



About the author

Kirk Willison

Kirk Willison is Arch MI’s chief advocate on Capitol Hill and before regulatory agencies. He also fosters relationships with trade groups, community organizations and think tanks to enhance Arch MI’s profile, influence and reputation as a thought leader in housing finance.