This week in history: Habitat for Humanity turns 40
Building in New Orleans / Tulane Public Relations, Albert Herring.

The well known nonprofit organization Habitat for Humanity International officially turns 40 this week. It was formally incorporated under the laws of the state of Georgia on March 18, 1977. Habitat considers itself an ecumenical Christian ministry grounded on the conviction that every human being should have a decent, safe and affordable place to live. They build with people in need regardless of race or religion, and welcome volunteers and supporters from all backgrounds.

Among Habitat’s most famous volunteers are former President Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. Each year, they spend a week leading an international Habitat trip, known as the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. “Habitat has opened up unprecedented opportunities for me to cross the chasm that separates those of us who are free, safe, financially secure, well fed and housed, and influential enough to shape our own destiny from our neighbors who enjoy few, if any, of these advantages of life,” Jimmy Carter has said.

According to Elio Delgado Legon, writing in Havana Times, UNICEF has reported a figure of between 100-150 million homeless children in the world. Go to Havana, and you will hear people say, “Not one of them is in Cuba.”

Is private philanthropy the answer to homelessness, or the larger question of creating decent housing for many millions of people in the world? Indeed, can philanthropy successfully address any of the pressing problems in society—healthcare, environmental degradation, education?

This is a question people on the left have struggled with for decades. Should we not have a socialist system that will properly apportion all of the commonweal toward the best collective benefit for all?

“You can’t help street children with spare change; you help them with governments’ political will,” Delgado Legon says. “They shouldn’t be asking for us to help street children, but asking themselves, why do street children exist?

“The answer is simple: They exist and will always exist as long as neoliberal capitalism and governments who are insensitive to the evils of society exist which continue to fill the world’s streets with small children dressed in rags with a sadness in their eyes, a real disgrace for humanity.”

But most of the world does not live under socialism. Are poor families supposed to wait until the morning of the Red Dawn before they live in a decent house? And even under socialism—or in social democracies such as many nations in Europe—priorities for social spending may not match social needs on a day-to-day or even year-to-year schedule.

Is there then no role for philanthropic participation from the public or from abroad? Cuba certainly relies in some part on voluntarism and donations both as substantial aid and as a political statement of solidarity. Oftentimes such aid has been provided by organizations with a religious orientation. (It does not appear that Habitat operates in Cuba, but in 2015 a fundraising cocktail party took place in Havana for the organization: see here.)

These questions will not be resolved quickly or easily.

Habitat for Humanity has an interesting history that goes back 75 years to 1942, when the Jordan and England families found Koinonia Farm, a still thriving community in Americus, Ga., where all people are treated equally, resources are shared and great responsibility is placed on being wise stewards of land and natural resources. Koinonia supports its work and community by selling what they grow and produce: eggs, chickens, milk and hogs. In 1950, the Jordan family and other Koinonians were excommunicated from Rehoboth Southern Baptist Church for their views on racial equality. Following a boycott of Koinonia products by the local business community,  Clarence Jordan received a letter of support in 1957 from Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1973, a Koinonia couple, Millard and Linda Fuller, took the group’s principles of Partnership Housing to Africa. Prospective homeowners served by the group had to commit to helping to build the house, a principle that remains a bedrock of Habitat philosophy. Normally it takes about 18 months to work with a family to develop a financial management plan for ownership, and to organize the “sweat equity” in the house provided by family members.

Upon their return in 1976 they helped establish Habitat for Humanity with headquarters in Americus. Incorporation came in 1977. Under this name, construction began on the first house in San Antonio, Tex., Habitat’s first affiliate outside of Ga. At the same time, the first partnership houses were completed in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). Guatemala soon became the first Habitat affiliate in Latin America.

Habitat grew exponentially: By its fifth anniversary it had fourteen U.S. and seven international affiliates and had built 342 houses. In 1984 the Carters became Habitat partners and sponsored the first Jimmy Carter Work Project in New York City.

In 1990, Abilene, Tex., became the 500th U.S. affiliate. In the following year Habitat’s 10,000th house was built, in Atlanta, Ga. Habitat’s first all women-built house was completed in Charlotte, N.C. In 1992, the first Native American affiliate was approved to address the desperate need for housing throughout Indian reservations in the U.S.

By the mid-1990s, Habitat began averaging some 10,000 new homes a year. In 1994, Habitat was named the 17th largest homebuilder in the United States. Worldwide, Habitat had reached into 50 nations. By the year 2000, Habitat’s 100,000th house was dedicated in New York City, and by 2004 Habitat was now in 100 countries.

Habitat had grown large enough, but also flexible enough to respond quickly to natural disasters such as tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes, with mass housebuilding projects in such countries as India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Chile and Haiti. By this time numerous celebrities and political figures had completed work stints on Habitat projects, significantly raising the organization’s profile.

In 2008 Habitat was named the 14th largest homebuilder in the U.S. and the 14th top charitable organization. Its ranking only improved in subsequent years, in 2010 reaching No. 8, the first time among the top 10 biggest homebuilders in the U.S., and a couple of years later No. 6.

We hail the success of Habitat for Humanity not only in building so many houses for people in need in every state of the U.S. and in over a hundred other countries, but also for involving their clients in the work itself, creating pride and accomplishment in ownership.

But even this tremendous example of participatory philanthropy cannot solve America’s—or the world’s—vast housing crisis. The right to a decent place to live must become a universal commitment that is adequately funded by public dollars.

Elio Delgado Legon is still right to call the lack of proper housing “a real disgrace for humanity” and to demand answers.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first book, Five Days, Five Nights, is available from International Publishers NY.