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Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity, Says Affordable Housing Is More Critical Than Ever

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Jonathan Reckford is not your typical non-profit CEO: Before his current tenure, he worked for Fortune 500 companies, including Goldma Sachs, Best Buy and Marriott.

Mr. Reckford has been CEO of Habitat for Humanity since 2005, so he has experienced the housing market in a frenzied boom, a shattering bust and a continued resurgence. There have been major market shifts, but for advocates, these may pale in comparison to potential changes caused by the proposed $6.2 billion, or 13.2 percent, reduction in the HUD budget. This would drastically cut HUD’s Capacity Building for Affordable Housing and Community Development Program, often referred to as the Section 4 program. This program helps community development corporations (CDCs) and community housing development organizations (CHDOs) conduct housing activities that assist low-income individuals. Hence, with these cuts, the Community Development Block Grant, the HOME Investment Partnerships, and Choice Neighborhoods programs and the Self-help Homeownership Opportunity Program (SHOP) all face elimination.

Overall, these cuts would cause public housing infrastructure to continue to decline at an accelerated rate, leading to increased homelessness and an affordable housing crisis at the local level. After all, as the National Association of Counties (NACo) points out, budgeting would become increasingly difficult for local housing authorities, as most counties rely on a certain degree of federal funding. One Habitat response to this threat? The Home Is the Key initiative, its first unified, nationwide cause campaign, which is gathering celebrities, sponsors and community leaders to raise awareness of the dearth of affordable housing — and what decent housing means in people’s lives.

In an interview with Aprio, Mr. Reckford discussed these threats of elimination, the new campaign and actions that other housing authorities and agencies can take to address these and ongoing concerns.

What brought about Habitat for Humanity’s first nationwide cause campaign? What does this mean to you?

“We have an affordable housing crisis in the country right now. There is nowhere in the United States where somebody making a minimum wage can afford a one-bedroom apartment. Over 11 million families making minimum wage spend over 50 percent of their income on rent every month. … Home Is the Key is about creating awareness of this desperate housing need and showing people how they can get involved and become part of the solution.”

“I grew up in a nice middle-class home. I never had to worry about being warm in the winter and dry when it rained. It launched me. It was a foundation for me.” Since then, “I’ve sadly had the experience of seeing families living in horrific circumstances. For those of us who grew up in decent housing, it’s hard to understand how hard things are when you don’t have that. The data is overwhelmingly clear: Children who grow up in decent housing stay healthier, do better in school and are better able to care for themselves and lift themselves up.” Affordable housing helps stop the cycle of poverty.

How is Habitat preparing for the proposed cuts?

“We hope the draft budget won’t see the light of day. It would wipe out community block grants, SHOP and capacity building. We think this would be devastating at a time when there is already such a housing deficit. Habitat is not dependent on federal funds, but it would diminish our ability to do our work because we leverage those federal funds with private dollars. We are educating our members of Congress from every single congressional district on how important those federal dollars are to cities, communities and states.”

What can the average person do?

“The second myth about Habitat is ‘the only way to help out is to raise a hammer.’ Last year we had [approximately] 1.8 million volunteers, and we really want to unleash those volunteers and everyone in this country to become advocates/voices for affordable housing. You can visit www.habitat.org to learn more about the campaign, learn more about the need, donate to Habitat’s work, find out how to advocate locally and nationally, share the hashtag #HomeIstheKey and invite others to participate through social media. If we all raise our voices, we can change hearts and minds.”

What are the key takeaways for housing executives?

Housing support is needed at all levels — local, state and federal. “At the state level, State Housing Finance [Agencies] are really important. It is really critical that we create financing for affordable housing so the private sector can build more housing. At the local level, it is about land use. We need advocates to find more land for affordable housing, which is one of the biggest constraints. Housing pricing has gone up much faster than incomes. It’s not so much construction costs; it’s really land costs. In local communities, we can allocate land for housing so that Habitat, private builders and others can start building more affordable housing.”

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