Changing the World: A Commercial for Habitat for Humanity

I first fell in love with Habitat for Humanity in 1989 when Habitat’s founding visionary, Millard Fuller, called me during my first week as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for President Bush 41. Fuller asked me to fly to Atlanta to help dedicate a Habitat built home in the low-income community of Sandtown.

As Fuller, his wife Linda, local dignitaries, local Habitat volunteers and building partners gathered around the new home of a young single mother who was holding the keys for the first time, a cynical reporter asked her: "Will this house look as good in 15 years as it does today?" I cringed at the insensitivity of a question predicated on the view that a first-time, low-income homeowner, a young woman of color who never owned property in her life, couldn’t possibly have the same incentive to improve her environment as a suburban middle-class family.

Her answer was that her place would look even better for two good reasons: It wasn’t her house, it was her home, and she owned it.

As Adam Smith wrote in An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations: "The desire to improve our lot in life comes to us out of the womb of our mothers and never leaves till the day we die."

Smith, a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University in Scotland, was not simply writing about white Anglo-Saxon Scots, Brits or Europeans, he was writing about the human aspiration and human nature innate to all people everywhere.

That’s why some form of democratic capitalism based on private property, free markets and free enterprise is the greatest engine of wealth creation ever known to mankind and remains the hope of the world.

On Aug. 14 and 15, I was in Knoxville as chairman of Habitat’s More Than Houses campaign to help dedicate the 200,000th Habitat home. I had the honor of presenting the keys to the front door to Koffi Kouassi, his wife Tonya and their beautiful children. With tears in their eyes (and ours) they told of their version of the American dream to own their first home. What made this so dramatic was that Kouassi was an immigrant from Ivory Coast, West Africa, just 14 years ago.

This is demonstrable evidence of the wisdom of Ronald Reagan’s observation that if you move to France you would not be French or move to Germany and you would not be German, but the day you move to America you’re an American. Kouassi is as patriotic an American as you could hope to meet.

Every 24 minutes another Habitat home is constructed somewhere in one of 100 Habitat nations around the world. More than 1 million people live in these homes and have the dignity and social justice that comes with decent shelter and ownership.

In The Mystery of Capital Hernando de Soto states that property can be leveraged into capital. This is why President Bush talks so often about an ownership society: owning a home, owning a good education (public or private), owning a Roth IRA or owning an individual retirement account as a portion of the Social Security payroll tax.

On the morning we dedicated the 200,000th house in Atlanta the 200,001st Habitat house was dedicated in India.

Thanks to volunteers and donors all over America and around the world, we’ve raised close to $500 million in just five years. Thanks to individual donors like Steve and Jean Case and partners like Whirlpool, Valspar, Lowe’s Corp., CitiGroup, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Dow Chemical, Weyerhaeuser and many others, the money raised goes directly to deserving families in need of homes.

Credit and gratitude should be given to the Fullers and to President Carter for their founding vision and to President Bush and HUD Secretary Alfonso Jackson for helping keep that vision alive and well in this early part of the 21st century. Businessman and lay pastor Jonathan Reckford has recently filled the huge shoes of the Fullers as the new president and CEO.

If you believe as I do in this ministry of the hammer, and if you believe in combating poverty by expanding homeownership in America and the world, please think seriously of contacting a local chapter or the international headquarters in Americus, Ga. If you want to help change the world, consider helping Habitat for Humanity combat poverty housing by becoming involved and helping create more homeowners like the Kouassis.