10/11/2010 12:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Celebrating Habitat for Humanity's 35th Year (And Can Carter Ready Take Credit?)

Habitat for Humanity is poised to celebrate its 35th anniversary next year. It's America at its can-do volunteer best: A paradigm for the world especially as it is tied by its official mission to the kind of religious salvation that inspires so many today. Talk about currency.

When President Carter made his "superior" post-presidential claim a couple of weeks ago coincident with the publication of his diaries, Habitat leapt to mind.

Many Americans (over 50 in any case) think that he created it and would label it as in fact his greatest enduring legacy, i.e. the strongest prospective validation of his claim to such superiority. Give it a try rather than taking my word for it: Any informal poll among baby-boomers will prove the point. (The Sinai peace accord between Egypt and Israel seems to take a distant second or third place to the extent it is recollected at all.)

What really happened is that four years after his term ended in the thick of Reagan-era small government, set-them-free spirit, he and First Lady Rosalynn volunteered at a Habitat work site and then stuck with it as they still do most recently at last Monday's World Habitat Day--i.e. the UN's annual brand-fest for fostering accessible shelter around the world. The association took root and prospered as surely no other former head of state here or anywhere else for that matter can be cited for such merit in the arena of sweat equity. It is as about as distinctly American as our culture allows.

Habitat was in fact founded in 1976 by fellow Georgians Millard and Linda Fuller, from nearby Americus, which remains the headquarters city today.

One of the keys to Habitat's enduring genius is its local affiliate-driven adaptability and accommodation of on-the -ground realities, whether driven by politics or economics or both. In the wake of the housing foreclosure debacle of 2008 and beyond, what merits emulation is HFH's concentration on the ways and means of applicants much the way local mortgage loan officers used to operate. The images of volunteer labor steal the show, but it is what goes on quietly beforehand that deserves more attention and emulation. Habitat always takes careful stock of program applicants by gently measuring their current and likely future incomes and thus their respective capacities for home ownership and the responsibilities it entails. What's old is new again! While the rest of the nation went berserk with speculation, Habitat quietly plodded along making sure that the public trust and charitable investment would be concomitant with personal responsibility.

They've often shown a comparable sort of innovation on the design front working as several Chapters have with this institute of architecture as with other like-minded civic and design enterprises to develop affordable blueprints that can help overcome NIMBY roadblocks and contribute to strong communities, where a contextual nod can make all the difference. The Institute's Texas Chapter just completed such a charette and the winning house will be built as paradigm; the same exercise occurred nationally and in partnership with Los Angeles Habitat.


Front elevation of the winning submission by Misela Gonzales, Bryan Morales, Gregory Cruess, Sari Imber, Krista Tremblay and JJ Zanetta of Michael G. Imber Architects in San Antonio


Second place blueprints by Buccellato Design in South Bend, Indiana.

The much-celebrated New Orleans Habitat Musicians' Village spawned in Katrina's wake is another case in point with the celebrity embrace of Connick, Jr and Marsalis combined with an arsenal of architectural good will.


Harry Connick, Jr. volunteering at the New Orleans Habitat Musicians' Village. Courtesy of Habitat for Humanity.

Only the long slog of history can affirm Carter's claim as right or wrong. But with the deficit-ridden federal government and a skeptical electorate poised surely to keep reducing the direct public investment in affordable housing, it does seem that whether intended or not he and the first lady helped create a legacy for NGO activism from the left that straddles the full specter of American politics today. Happy birthday Habitat, meanwhile, for the year upcoming and what seems likely to be a growing policy role in the 21st century.