Jonathan Reckford,the new CEO of Habitat for Humanity, didn’t see Hurricane Katrina disaster recovery as part of his job description when he was given the position just before the hurricane struck New Orleans in August 2005.
The former executive at corporations such as the Walt Disney Co. and Best Buy, Inc., had to step up when Habitat was called on to build housing on an unprecedented scale in response to the homes lost in the Gulf Coast. At the same time, the nonprofit was shaken by the controversial dismissal of its founder, Millard Fuller.
Affordable Housing Finance spoke with Reckford about his role in expanding Habitat’s ability to provide more safe and affordable places for families to live in the second half of the decade.
Q What are some challenges you are facing with Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts?
A Our affiliates were clobbered by the hurricanes. We’re working to rebuild their capacities and get them back on their feet.
We’re working much more than ever as part of a greater solution as opposed to doing it by ourselves. We’re working with other nonprofits involved, government agencies and private corporations.
The thing that really got the disproportionate amount of press is the idea of “a house in a box.” We’re framing up houses and then putting them in flat panels in trucks and, in one case, shipping them down on a barge, to the Gulf states where they are building foundations now. The benefit is that we could start on some of those homes long before the infrastructure is in place to do any building.
Our goal is to do a few hundred of these kinds of houses and then naturally build most of the houses off the ground.
Q What are your specific goals for the Gulf Coast?
A We have commitments of more than $70 million, which we’re thrilled with. We’ve been really touched by the generosity of the American people. We got donations from other countries as well.
What we’re doing now is building in slightly more peripheral areas like Covington and Slidell, La., and in Mississippi and Texas, that weren’t right in the storm. It’s not prudent for us to start building [inside] until there’s some zoning and government decisions made in terms of how this is going to be built.
One thing the board did agree on is that disaster recovery should be an ongoing part of our world going forward … We think the role of Habitat is not to be part of the initial relief but that we would like to come in behind the relief organizations and be part of the rebuilding.
Q Will you be able to build your second set of 100,000 homes by the end of 2005 (which was Habitat’s goal in 2001)?
A In August, the day after I was announced as CEO, I had the great privilege of helping build the 200,000th home in Nashville, and 24 minutes later, we kicked off the 200,001st house in Kanyakumari, India. We did this intentionally to remind everybody that we finish a Habitat house every 24 minutes around the world.
We have just announced a new strategic plan. We completed the original goal of the five-year plan by raising $500 million and building 100,000 homes [see Affordable Housing Finance, July/August 2001, page 24]. We want to double again [by serving] another 200,000 families over the next five years.
In the U.S., we’re building 5,000 homes a year right now, and we would like to drive that number up.
Q How will 2006 be different for Habitat?
A We’re looking at more ways to partner with others throughout the financing of affordable housing. One of the challenges is with the appreciation in land prices and home prices. We’re getting squeezed in every metro area and even rural areas.
We have the volunteers, the materials and a huge waiting list of families, but the bottleneck is getting land. So, financing vehicles like working with state and local government organizations to find ways to acquire land are part of the strategic goal.
It’s also a desire of Habitat to be more of a local advocate for affordable housing than we have in the past. We’ll try to reach out and use the pulpit, making sure that we’re giving voice to the need for good housing policy and for those who need affordable housing.
Our goal is to [serve families earning from] 30% to 50% of the area median income … so that they have a chance to build equity.
Q Please explain how you are partnering to get the financing to acquire land.
A In Minnesota, [our affiliates] are working closely with the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. They created access to very low cost money for land. [The affiliates] can buy down the very low cost money and then loan it out to our homebuyers.
Florida has been a pacesetter in creating some funding so that affiliates and other housing groups can purchase land for affordable housing. … We’re trying to look at land-banking options and a variety of different private and public funding sources. We’re working with cities to [hold on to sites until we’re ready to build].
[The lack of land is having us look] at mid-rises or townhomes or higher-density structures. Historically, Habitat has been building single-family only, and that will still be the great bulk of what we do, but we need to make sure that we make the best use of the land.
Q The organization recently split quite publicly from founder Millard Fuller. What’s Habitat’s relationship with Fuller now?
A Fuller had a remarkable tenure. I have enormous respect for what he did and his legacy at Habitat. I think we’ve also recognized that Habitat is bigger than any one individual.
There’s no official relationship between Habitat and Fuller. He’s running a different group called the Fuller Center for Housing. He and I speak, and our goal is to have a positive and respectful relationship. But it was a pretty tough year last year.
Q How did you get started with Habitat?
A When I was working for the Walt Disney Co., Habitat was our charity of choice, so we started to build Habitat homes in Orlando, Fla. Like so many people, I came out because it’s a good thing to do, and I kept bringing my team up to do team-building exercises.
The job came as a surprise through a search firm as they were looking for a replacement for the founder. I had left the business world and was [an executive pastor] for a large church in Minnesota. I think they were intrigued by my corporate business background combined with my ministry work.