Catching Up With … Jonathan Reckford
CEO, Habitat for Humanity International
Tell us about the mission and work of Habitat for Humanity International.
Habitat for Humanity is an inclusive Christian housing organization. We work in 71 countries around the world right now and in almost 1,100 communities across the United States.
The world found out about the tiny organization in 1984, when President and Mrs. Carter rode a bus up to New York City, slept in a church basement and helped rehab a tenement building on the Lower East Side.
What has been Habitat’s impact in Georgia?
Our impact in Georgia is far greater than the number of houses that Habitat has built. We recognized many years back that by ourselves we could never build enough houses to solve the housing crisis. So how could we use what we do and build more than ever, but also use the process of bringing people together to increase our influence and help create better housing policies.
What can be done to solve the growing housing affordability crisis?
It’s going to take, I believe, a mix of federal, state and local action. At the federal level, one of the most promising [measures] is called the Neighborhood Homes Investment Act, a tax credit. Imagine a rural or urban part of a city that has been distressed and under-invested in over time. You’ve got houses that you could buy for relatively modest costs, but the cost to improve them and bring them up to code will end up being more than they’ll appraise for. So they’re just sitting and rotting away rather than being improved. With this tax credit, Habitat or another builder could purchase those homes, fix them up, sell them to an income-qualified family and then claim a tax credit that would cover that gap. This could get hundreds of thousands of houses preserved and back into circulation and help on the supply side quite quickly.
At the local level, zoning is a gigantic issue. ‘Not in my backyard’ is a big issue. We have to build more – not everywhere, but along transit and close to where people work.
At the state level, [we need] more subsidy for down-payment assistance and more support for better land-use policies. I’m really interested in solutions that will allow the private market to get a fair return and create incentives to build mixed-income, not only high-end, [housing].
Tell us about the ongoing relationship with President and Mrs. Carter.
The myth is that President Carter started Habitat, which is not true. But he is so closely identified with us. After they got involved in New York City in 1984, they continued that involvement and spent a week with us every year until 2019, until COVID stopped it.
We, like so many others, are praying for the Carter family. I think the best way to honor his
legacy is to go out and serve. We want to continue his legacy. We’ll be having the annual Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter work project this fall in Charlotte, North Carolina.
What might surprise our readers about Habitat?
We don’t give away houses. The core element of Habitat that’s been so powerful is [that] families qualify to purchase a home from Habitat by being too low-income to get a traditional bank mortgage. They partner with Habitat. That means they have clean credit and take classes on financial management and home maintenance and put in what we call sweat equity, literally hundreds of hours into helping build their home and their neighbors’ homes instead of a cash down payment. And then the ability to pay back a no-profit, affordable mortgage. We recycle the payments they make back into the same community. I think that partnership element has been foundational to why Habitat families have been so successful over time.
Habitat was founded in Americus in 1976 and is now headquartered in Atlanta. Reckford has served as CEO of the global Christian housing organization since 2005. These are edited highlights of an interview