121 Habitat Street
Habitat for Humanity International brings families and communities in need together with volunteers and resources to build decent, affordable housing.
Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) is a world service organization providing affordable homes with interest-free mortgages to families in need. Founded by Millard and Linda Fuller, Habitat's long-term dream is to eradicate housing projects around the world, and to replace them with solid, single-family homes built by HFHI volunteers and the future owners themselves. For the shorter term, however, Habitat will settle for their 200,000th home built by the year 2005, and having housed over 475,000 people internationally. Using their faith and homebuilding skills, the Fullers and a growing list of sponsors and volunteers (including such luminaries as Jimmy Carter, Jerry Falwell, Louis Gossett, Jr., Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, and Oprah Winfrey) have transformed the lives of many homeless families into proud homeowners and lifelong Habitat volunteers.
From Less to More: 1920s--50s
Millard Fuller was born in Chambers County in eastern Alabama, the son of poor sharecroppers. His mother died when he was three years old, and he was raised by his father. Religion was a big part of Fuller family life, with Fuller, Sr., working as the deacon of the local church on top of his duties as farmer, grocer, and full-time parent. From a very young age, Millard worked alongside his father in their country store, contributing to the family's income. He raised pigs, trapped minnows, and as he grew older, sought varied ways to earn money, from trading used cars to selling fireworks. He put himself through college at Auburn University, where he was the youngest director of the Junior Achievement program in the nation. He then attended the University of Alabama Law School at Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
As a rising young businessman, Fuller allied himself with another like-minded law student, Morris Dees, who also wanted to become a successful entrepreneur. Through hard work and an acuity beyond their years, the two young men dove into a number of business enterprises, eventually buying real estate and renovating apartments (with help from Millard's father, who mortgaged the family farm to give his son funds). In his senior year of law school, Fuller married his sweetheart, Linda (who earned her B.S. degree from nearby Huntingdon College). They dreamed of living happily ever after.
After passing the bar, Fuller and Dees set out to make serious money. Among their endeavors was publishing regional and specialty cookbooks (Favorite Recipes of American Home Economics Teachers, Favorite Recipes of New England, Favorite Recipes of the Deep South, Favorite Recipes of the Lions Clubs: A Lion in the Kitchen, and many more), in which they had discovered a very lucrative market. The two had also founded a law firm in Montgomery, Alabama, and quickly earned a good reputation and growing client base. Before his 30th birthday, Millard Fuller was not only a successful attorney but a self-made millionaire.
Cold Comfort to Warm Hearts: Late 1960s--70s
As many before him had learned, Fuller found money could not buy happiness. More dollars meant more work and he was obsessed with making more and more money. This left little time for Linda and the children, who had all the trappings wealth could buy but virtually no husband or father. Fuller was so busy he and Linda eventually conducted church services in their own living room, because it was more convenient and less time consuming. But Millard's constant absenteeism put his marriage on the rocks and Linda soon had enough; she took the kids and flew to New York City for marriage counseling. Fuller, in deteriorating health, was not ready to give up on his family and hopped a plane. 'I could visualize myself as a lonely person with no family and a pile of money. That's cold comfort,' Fuller later told Kelly Starling of Ebony magazine in 1997.
In a cab ride after a counseling session, Millard realized the root of his family and marital problems was money, and decided to get rid of it all. Linda was in complete agreement, though some family members and friends tried to dissuade them. Undeterred, Millard sold his half of the Montgomery law firm as well as his stake in the publishing company. The Fullers sold their belongings and then gave upwards of $1 million to various Christian charities and educational funds, and prepared to live out their faith by doing God's work.
On a trip to Atlanta, Fuller met Clarence Jordan, who ran a controversial (at the time) interracial Christian commune called Koinonia Farm near Americus, Georgia. Though many in Sumpter County, Georgia, considered Koinonia Farm to be a radical cult-like movement, the Fullers found the community comforting and moved in with their four children. There near the end of the 1960s, Millard, Linda, Clarence, and others decided to build affordable housing in the area for lower income families. One of the earliest recipients of their homebuilding plan was Joseph 'Bo' Johnson, who had saved his money to buy a parcel of land with hopes of building a home for his family. He achieved the first part of his dream and became a property owner, but had nothing left over to build even the simplest house. Fuller met Johnson and wanted to help; he was also a firm believer in the Biblical tenet (Exodus 22:25) of not charging interest or making a profit off the less fortunate. 'You know it's interesting that the world's three great monotheistic religions--Islam, Judaism and Christianity--all teach in their Scriptures not to charge interest to the poor. But in the Western world we've largely taken that Scriptural idea and turned it upside down,' Fuller explained to William Olcott of Fund Raising Management in October 1994. 'We give the prime lending rate to the richest people and charge the highest interest to the poorest.'
After completing Johnson's house and several others in Sumpter County, the Fuller family moved to Zaire (now the Republic of Congo) in 1973 with volunteers from the Disciples of Christ Christian Church to construct housing. The homebuilding project was a success, just as it had been in Georgia, and the Fullers returned to the United States after three years with a more formalized plan to provide housing for those in need. By instituting a 'biblical' finance plan or 'the economics of Jesus,' the Fullers and a group of dedicated volunteers would build low-cost houses with interest-free financing everywhere, eradicating substandard housing and the ever present projects. The organization formed in 1976 to oversee and carry out these aspirations was called Habitat for Humanity.
The Economics of Jesus: 1980s
After Habitat had been in the business of building homes with love and faith for a few years, Millard sat down and wrote about his vision--past, present, and future--in a book. The 192-page Love in the Mortar Joints: The Story of Habitat for Humanity was the result, published by New Win Publishing in August 1980. The well-received history brought notice to the growing ecumenical organization, yet much wider acknowledgment came in Habitat's eighth year when
Millard lassoed a fellow Baptist church member into helping out. The man and his wife were rather well known in Georgia, and in fact, all over the world. HFHI's recognition soared when former president and avid carpenter Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn Carter began devoting their time and effort to building homes for Habitat in 1984. They soon set up the Jimmy Carter Work Project , in which they traveled to a new location every year to construct housing. The Carters' involvement was a tremendous boon for the organization, raising awareness of HFHI's mission and methods. Carter called Millard 'an inspiration' and the feeling was mutual.
Fuller's second book, No More Shacks! The Daring Vision of Habitat for Humanity,a 220-page coffee table-type book filled with photographs, was published in July 1986, followed in 1990 by a treatise called Restrictive Housing Regulation Increases Problems and a collaboration with Linda entitled The Excitement Is Building: How Habitat for Humanity Is Putting Roofs Over Heads and Hope in Hearts.Writing not only served as a means to spread the word about Habitat and its members, but had become a valuable source of funds. Millard Fuller was well versed in the power of publishing, since his early college days, and the first of a proposed series of gift books was published by the Georgia-based Peachtree Publishers. The 206-page A Christmas Housewarming, edited by Gene Stelton, with a foreword written by Jimmy Carter, was published in 1992.
In the early 1990s Habitat-built homes generally cost from $35,000 to $42,000 to construct in the United States (or as little as $500 in Third World countries), usually on donated or bargain-priced land parcels. Local businesses often provided basic building materials free of charge, materials in sync with the other homes in the area. Fuller's army of God, composed of persons of all religious backgrounds, worked tirelessly towards the same goal. As Fuller explained to D'Arcy Jenish of Maclean's magazine (August 1993), 'We use the philosophy of the hammer. We may disagree with one another theologically or philosophically, but we can all wield the hammer as an expression of love.' Although Habitat was clearly a Christian organization, Fuller stressed, 'We are non-denominational and non-doctrinal. We welcome support from whoever wants to give it and we do in fact have support from a broad segment of this country.'
For their part, potential homeowners were required to lend a hand in the construction of their own homes as well as those of others, from 200 to 500 hours of what Habitat referred to as 'sweat equity.' Additionally, future owners provided a small down payment which HFHI pooled in a revolving fund and put toward the building of other homes.
Onward Christian Soldiers: 1993--97
By 1993 HFHI was constructing an average of two dozen homes per day, a figure Fuller believed would climb to 30 a day by the following year. The fact that Habitat had already built 20,000 homes in 40 countries simply was not enough. Fuller had bigger and brighter plans for HFHI, similar to his earlier entrepreneurial drive, the very drive which nearly cost him his life and his family. Yet his acumen was no longer focused on increasing his personal wealth, but on how far every donated dollar could go in his battle against poverty and homelessness. The same obsessive urges that had made him a millionaire were now harnessed by faith. As the 17th largest home builder in the United States in 1993, according to Builder magazine, Fuller wanted Habitat to rise to the top slot within three years. Further, in his five-year plan, he hoped HFHI would construct more than 45,000 houses annually, which came to more than 123 homes every day.
Accolades for Habitat came in 1994 when the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) named the organization as the Non-Profit Organization of the Year. The Fullers later received the Harry S. Truman Public Service Award. By the end of the year, HFHI had constructed more than 40,000 homes in all 50 states and 41 countries worldwide, and the organization and its affiliates had brought in more than $145 million in support and contributions. Habitat also managed a one-million-plus mailing list, which grew with increased exposure, such as when Fuller was named Builder of the Year by Professional Builder magazine in 1995. Peachtree Publishers issued its second gift book later that year, Home for the Holidays: Stories and Art Created for the Benefit of Habitat for Humanity, again edited by Stelton.
Linda Fuller, meanwhile, in addition to building homes and getting women around the world involved in Habitat with WATCH (Women Accepting the Challenge of Housing), had begun a publishing project of her own. In 1993 she debuted the first in a series of cookbooks called Partners in the Kitchen, with From Our House to Yours, followed by Home Sweet Habitat (1995) and Simple, Decent Cooking (1997). Again harking back to Millard's early years in publishing, the cookbooks were a successful fundraising tool for the organization, selling more than 100,000 copies. Millard too had continued to write, publishing The Theology of the Hammer (1994), A Simple, Decent Place to Live: The Building Realization of Habitat for Humanity (1995), and Bokotola (1997).
By 1997 Habitat had become the fourth largest homebuilder in the world and the nation's number one nonprofit homebuilder. There were 60,000 HFHI homes in 54 countries, with two-fifths of the total construction taking place outside the United States. Yet Habitat, long known for its strident volunteers, earned another badge of honor that year in Tucson. Working with the Tucson Urban League and a grant from the National Urban Consortium, HFHI began constructing homes of the future using straw bales, replacing up to 13 percent of traditional wood building materials. Straw, it turned out, had incredible insulating powers and cost homeowners up to 75 percent less to heat and cool their abodes. While Habitat did accept grants from a number of groups, including the federal government (like the previous year's $25 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development), as a rule HFHI did not receive governmental funds, wishing to remain autonomous and also maintain the separation of church and state. Yet the 1996 federal grant marked 20 years of good deeds for Habitat, and Millard was recognized by President Clinton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian award in the country), who called HFHI 'the most successful continuous community service project in the history of the United States.'
Housing, Help, and Hope: 1998--2000
Habitat, though not a disaster relief organization like the Red Cross, became involved in such operations in the late 1990s. After a tornado in Alabama and devastation caused by two hurricanes (Georges in September and Mitch in October 1998), HFHI sought donations to help victims of the calamities. Hoping to raise some $2 million in funds after Hurricane Mitch hit Central America, HFHI was buoyed by donations totaling $6 million and immediately began building homes for the many left homeless by the deadly storm. To better respond to natural disasters and coordinate volunteer efforts, Habitat created its Disaster Response Office. Habitat workers lent a hand after the Alabama tornado and a subsequent touchdown in Oklahoma the following year.
Amazingly Habitat-built homes had withstood other natural disasters such as Hurricane Andrew, the Los Angeles earthquake, and flooding in southern Georgia. When asked about miracles or why these houses had survived, Fuller believed God was indeed keeping an eye on these homes because they were built from love and a firm foundation of faith. While he was quick to point out, 'I don't believe that only bad things happen to bad people and only good things happen to good people,' his pride in Habitat's work was evident. 'But I was down there right after the hurricane and it did look like our houses were built after the hurricane,' he told Fund Raising Management's Olcott. 'It was amazing.'
By the last year in the 20th century, Habitat had built or renovated nearly 80,000 homes around the globe, and made a profound difference in the lives of the more than 400,000 people who lived in these safe, solid homes. Millard was the recipient of the Jefferson Award from the American Institute of Public Service for his work on behalf of the disadvantaged, while Builder magazine deemed him one of the 20th century's most influential homebuilders. With nearly 1.3 million worldwide donors in 1999, and funds raised from its publishing ventures (including Millard's new tome, More Than Houses: How Habitat for Humanity Is Transforming Lives and Neighborhoods), Habitat brought in over $121.1 million in support for 1999. The next year, Jerome P. Baggett's exhaustive study of the ecumenical organization, Habitat for Humanity: Building Private Homes, Building Public Religion, was published by Temple University Press.
The Fullers had big plans for the new century: to construct an additional 100,000 houses by 2005. This, in and of itself, would be a tremendous accomplishment, since it took nearly a quarter-century to build Habitat's first 100,000 homes. With corporate alliances as well as high profile celebrities lending a hand, HFHI was well positioned to meet its goals and, perhaps, would one day eliminate dilapidated housing projects from the planet.
Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: