CEO Stresses Affordable Housing Needs

Angie Peng

Harvard Business School lecturer Nicolas P. Retsinas (right) greets Habitat for Humanity CEO Jonathan Reckford before Reckford's address on affordable housing at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Habitat for Humanity International CEO Jonathan T.M. Reckford spoke at the Graduate School of Design last night, urging increased cooperation between governments, businesses, and non-profit organizations to tackle the need for affordable housing.

Reckford’s talk, titled “Three Myths About Affordable Housing” and organized by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, focused on debunking the “myth” that affordable housing is “someone else’s problem.”

As Reckford explained, housing attracts investment and spurs job creation, benefiting entire communities. A lack of housing, in contrast, can undermine health care and job spending.

“In order to provide affordable housing for all, the public, private, and non-profit sectors have to come together,” he said.

Within this model of cooperation, Reckford said the role of non-profits should be to engage local communities. His organization partners with community members in building basic houses and selling them at affordable prices. The homeowners’ monthly payments are then used to build more houses.

Reckford announced that next week, in recognition of World Habitat Day on Oct. 3, Habitat for Humanity will dedicate its 500,000th house in Maai Mahiu, Kenya, and begin construction on its 500,001st house in Paterson, N.J.

When the floor was opened up to audience questions, a number of attendees inquired about Habitat’s response to the recent increase in foreclosed homes. Reckford responded that instead of building homes from scratch, the organization has ramped up its efforts to rehabilitate abandoned houses. Last fiscal year, Habitat worked on 4,500 houses for repair and rehab, up 100 percent from the year before, according to Reckford.

Among the attendees was Ryan R. Mohling, a second-year student at the Harvard Kennedy School who worked at Habitat for Humanity last summer. He said it was “exciting to see Habitat invited to such a prestigious lecture,” and that it reflected increased cooperation between different sectors on the issue.

Eric S. Belsky, the managing director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies, emphasized the unique perspective Reckford brings to the housing discussion. By focusing on its economic significance, people have “lost sight of how important housing is for individuals,” he said while introducing Reckford to a full audience.

Reckford joined Habitat for Humanity as its CEO in 2005, previously serving as a pastor in Edina, Minn. Throughout his talk, he brought up experiences from his travels outside the U.S., where 90 percent of the families served by Habitat reside.

Reckford said it has been a privilege for him to interact with families on a personal level and see their lives transformed by Habitat’s work. “It fills me with an urgency to make sure other families have that chance,” he said.