02/12/2014 06:01 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

With Your Help We Can and Must Do More

In early November, Habitat for Humanity raised the walls on the 800,000th house built, rehabilitated or repaired since 1976. Recently, we also surpassed a long-standing goal to serve more than 100,000 families in a single year. That means Habitat is now serving a family in need of decent and affordable housing somewhere around the world every four minutes.

Yet -- with more than 1.6 billion people continuing to live in poverty housing and another 100 million with no home at all -- Habitat can and must do more. We believe decent housing is a critical foundation for breaking the cycle of poverty. Our recently launched strategic plan for 2014-2018 focuses on three areas: improving housing conditions for the escalating number of low-income families worldwide; supporting and influencing partner organizations to increase access to shelter and to advocate for affordable housing policies; and mobilizing the hands, hearts and voices of volunteers in the cause of adequate and affordable housing.

Right now, I am surrounded by hundreds of Habitat supporters in Washington, D.C., for Habitat on the Hill, our annual legislative conference. Together, we are bolstering our knowledge about the international and legislative priorities that affect affordable housing and will travel to Capitol Hill to meet with congressional leaders to talk about the importance of safe, decent and affordable shelter. It's vital that we take part in housing finance reform discussions and share how National Service, the Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program (SHOP) and weatherization programs allow us to partner with families looking to invest in a home and in their communities.

Consider the impact of National Service programs like AmeriCorps and VISTA. Currently, 550 AmeriCorps members are serving Habitat in more than 175 U.S. communities. In total, Habitat AmeriCorps members have served more than 20,000 U.S. families, contributed more than 13 million hours of service, raised tens of millions of dollars in cash and in-kind resources and mobilized more than 3.1 million volunteers. The 2014 federal budget restores some of the 2013 sequester cuts, but most accounts are still below fiscal year 2012 funding levels. These programs are an important component of the work we do, and our ability to serve would be greatly diminished without them.

Funds from SHOP, another federal program key to our work, help Habitat purchase land and foreclosed or abandoned properties and develop the infrastructure that enables first-time, low-income homebuyers the opportunity to own a Habitat home. To date, Habitat has leveraged more than $1 billion in private investment in local communities through the SHOP program, drawing more than five dollars of private investment in communities for every dollar of federal grant funding. Though SHOP is one of the most effective and cost-efficient programs at HUD, the program has received $17 million in cuts since fiscal year 2012, and its value is something Habitat advocates will be passionately supporting on Capitol Hill.

Our weatherization efforts are particularly relevant right now as much of the U.S. has faced subzero temperatures, snow, ice and unbearable wind chills this winter. Those living in homes with no insulation or drafty roofs, walls and windows are not only desperate to find relief, but they are often forced to choose between heating their homes, paying their rent or buying essentials like food and medication. Sadly, this is the reality for more than 30 million low-income families. The energy burden for these low-income households is great, representing more than 14 percent of their total income spent on energy compared to an average of four percent for middle-income households. We can help ease this burden, however. Congress has an opportunity to pass the Weatherization Enhancement and Local Energy Efficiency Investment and Accountability Act (S.1213). You can join our efforts and tell Congress to help families stay warm and reduce energy costs by passing this bill.

When we unite and speak as one, our voices are heard and our intentions are clear: Everyone should have a simple, decent place to live in dignity and safety. It's up to us to promote the policies and systems that advance access to adequate, affordable housing.

Click here to learn more about Habitat's advocacy efforts.