Building on Faith, a documentary on affordable housing

February 26, 2007 | Affordable Housing, Faith-based organizations, Poverty, Public housing

Some months back, I was a principal interviewee in the NBC-TV documentary “Building On Faith.” Subtitled Making Poverty Housing History, it’s now being broadcast on some NBC affiliates throughout the country, and is available on DVD:

The hour-long program, presented by the National Council of Churches USA, includes interviews with the CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, Jonathan Reckford, and with former vice-presidential candidates John Edwards and Jack Kemp. Edwards also served as a U.S. senator from North Carolina and Kemp as U.S. secretary of housing and urban development and U.S. congressman from New York.

Mr reckford

Jonathon Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity

The program, narrated by Linda Ellerbee, award-winning broadcast journalist and television producer, will look at how providing a safe and secure home is a basic necessity for building a just and functional society.

(To order a copy directly from the producer, click here.)

Particularly effective is the program’s mix of real success stories — people expressing the value of housing and home in their own words:

Jerome Lawrence: Having a house of my own just made all the difference in the world for me, getting out and started. Before, when I was living with my mom I was going nowhere and doing not much of anything and then with the house I had things to do. I met people through the Habitat experience that helped me in my career. I’m an artist. Just having the house sets you in motion to do and be a lot of things. It’s hard to put into words. I’ve had a new look on life, a new feelings of responsibility. It’s like having the house I have something of my own and having something of my own I want to get involved in the community, in the neighborhood, think about working and making enough money to improve the property, improve my life. It just made all the difference in the world.

The stories are interwoven with both practitioner activity and policy justification:

Nic Retsinas (voice): If you show me where someone lives, I can tell you whether they are rich or poor. I can probably tell you what kind of life they lead. I can certainly tell you what kind of school they go to.

And programmatic experience:

Jim Wallis: I was in Madison, Wisconsin a couple years ago and the Baptists had an affordable housing project. And they would take homeless families and they’d invite them in and this wasn’t a shelter, this was a stable housing sort of scheme. And the kids could live there and they had an after school, computer homework kind of place. You had kids that went from 1.5 grade point averages to 3.5, just by providing a stable, secure place to live and somewhere every day to do homework after school.

Mnr wallis

Jim Wallis, Sojourners/ Call to Renewal

I can do no better than quote extensively from the program:

Sharon Watkins (voice): Everything about who children will be is being formed today, and their surroundings help them to know what is possible in their lives.

AHI is founded on the premise that changing housing environments changes lives, and changes communities.

Brad Hewitt: Think about having to change schools every three months. The traumatic effect that has on not ever having permanent friendships, on not having the same teacher even for the whole year, of trying to have any kind of stable family life if you’re constantly moving.


Brad Hewitt, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans

We make the future by how we make and raise children into adults:

Erin Rank, Habitat for Humanity Los Angeles: Habitat for Humanity is seeing now families who are living multiple people in one room, multiple families in a small apartment. More and more families being pushed into illegally converted rental units, like garages, and the housing crisis is becoming very desperate in Los Angeles.


Children in Mavoko, Kenya

Because housing demand is elastic, when housing gets too expensive, people overcrowd, because they have no choice:

Jonathon Reckford: Overcrowding creates significant issues and we see families with enormous numbers piled into a very small space. Sometimes they can’t segregate the boys from the girls; there are all sorts of privacy issues for families, so there’s a whole series of things we don’t tend to think about or take for granted … really the quality of life for those families.

Smith: If you want to have a society in which people at all levels can live and work and cohabit together, then it is imperative that as a society, government dedicates a portion of the wealth that is created in this country, back to the issue of housing affordability. And whether you choose to justify that because it’s the right thing to do or because it’s in the long-term interest of the country, it is something that needs to be done.


David Smith: Coming soon to a station near you?

Hewitt: You can wring your hands and hope it goes away or you can actually start building houses and start finding ways to make it affordable for as many as you can possibly do. So we’ve kinda decided to just go for the solution and keep working on some of the other complexities.

We delve into the affordability dynamics of the cost-value gap,

Smith: Affordable housing does not exist in economic nature. It comes into being only as a result of conscious political choice and wise government policy and program development.

and the need for external social-capital funding:

Smith: If you look at the price of housing, the price of housing consists essentially of three things. Number one, the cost of operations: utilities, maintenance and stuff. Number two, the cost of construction. And number three, the price of land. Land, used to grow human beings as opposed to crops, doesn’t have any intrinsic value. The value of land is the residue of what people can afford to pay for housing minus those two previous costs. And so what happens, and this is the first thing that governments have to understand, is that in any urban or urbanizing environment the price of land rises to precisely the point where it supports market housing. Which means it leaves behind the creation of affordable housing.

Sheila Crowley, National Low Income Housing Coalition: There’s no place in the country, not a single place in the whole country, where if you’re a fulltime minimum wage worker, that you can afford the rent on a one bedroom rental unit.

Smith: And so you can choose the two-hour commute or the single room occupancy apartment, or the under-maintained, deteriorating shell. None of those are societally acceptable in a large inter-dependent urbanizing environment. And therefore, if you don’t like that outcome, you have to change the economics.

Housing and healthy communities are linked:


Learning center, Palo Alto Housing Corporation property

David Lereah, National Association of Realtors: When you look at the macro picture, the housing industry can only be as healthy as everyone participating in that industry. We have a very large component of households in America that are not participating in the American dream of home ownership.

Moving people into better homes, and giving them an economic stake in their home, also changes them for the better:

Jim Dickerson, Manna: These folks graduated out of homelessness, out of poverty, and took the next step up into reaching their goals and into improving their lives. And then their neighborhoods. They have a stake in the community. How their schools are. They join neighborhood associations. Everything changes. We believe that we need a range of housing. Rental housing is very important. We need other types of ownership that preserves long-term affordability, like land trust and limited equity co-ops. We don’t believe in restricting severely lower income people’s ability to gain a piece of the equity from home ownership. This is the traditional way people have made their way out of poverty. I feel very proud that over the years, we’ve calculated we’ve helped to create or to give access to over 50 million dollars in equity for low income people. There are many organizations doing good work that are being successful, etc. Habitat does it one way, we do it another way, another non-profit does it another way, but the goal is the same.

Unfortunately, as I’ve documented at length, what we as a society want and what we are willing to pay for are far apart:


Unfortunately, we don’t

Smith: The amount of funds devoted to affordable housing has shrunk in real terms, more or less steadily for the last 30 years.

Wallis: You can’t just keep pulling bodies out of the river and not send somebody upstream to see what or who is throwing them in.

Smith: At the absolute most fundamental level, a community decides who will live there by two things: zoning and real estate taxes. A community that refuses to zone for some amount of higher density, either elderly or family housing, in effect says, we don’t want those people living in our community.

Wallis: They can’t just build houses for the homeless and not challenge policies which make home ownership less possible for low income people.

Smith: A community that says, if you create affordable housing, whether it’s elderly or otherwise, we will give it an exemption from real estate taxes. That community is providing some of its funding to contribute to creating the resource. So, between the zoning, which defines how many, and the real estate tax assessment which defines how much, communities can encourage or discourage affordable housing. And that can be done at every single level.

We talk about the nation’s housing challenges:

Smith: I think the US has two large problems, and they’re really quite distinct in nature.


Urbanizing city areas have a tremendous problem of pepper-potting affordability into existing communities. NIMBYism, Not In My Back Yard, is real and is very frustrating. And beyond NIMBYism, there’s one that we call ‘BANANA’ — Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody. The conservation and slow-growth and smart-growth movements, whatever the merits of their case, have the effect of preventing the pepper potting of affordable housing into existing communities. That’s a reason why workforce housing is so absent from these communities and why it’s such a political issue.


Smith: In the rural arena, the problem is that you have flat-growth cities, and an aging population and we do not have a good means of providing for them. So, the question is how do you sustain the economics where the normal fundamental economics would say, close the house, turn it back into cornfield? I think those are two that come to mind as significant issues. Beyond which is simply the overarching issue to go back to something I said a while ago, that affordable housing has become a partisan issue when I think it really should not be.

Even allowing for my interest in the subject, Nancy and I found the documentary both informative and moving, even when I was doing the talking:

Smith: By definition, a quarter of the population is going to lag economically. And that quarter will not be able to afford market quality housing, period, full stop. The question is, do you do something about it, and if so, what?

[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]