A Discussion with Kevin Hunter, Habitat for Humanity Seattle

With: Kevin Hunter Berkley Center Profile

November 30, 2012

Background: This discussion took place on November 14, 2012 between Kevin Hunter, Katherine Marshall, Michael Bodakowski, and Ariel Gleicher via conference call, as part of a joint review of a Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) interfaith pilot by the World Faiths Development Dialogue and HFHI. The interview is a component of the larger evaluation and a series of interviews that form a baseline. Tom Jones, ambassador-at-large and senior leadership team member of HFHI, spearheaded the initiative that began with a 2008 workshop on faith and shelter at Georgetown University. In this interview Kevin Hunter, chief program officer of Habitat for Humanity Seattle, outlines the Seattle HFH affiliate office and interfaith engagement in the context of the recent merger of affiliate offices in his county. He highlights the area’s diverse cultural contexts and the high cost of real estate as central factors steering his chapter’s work. He identifies the primary tension around faith as based around a lack of understanding toward the Muslim communities. In implementing the Interfaith Toolkit, his affiliate is drawing momentum from Seattle’s fiftieth anniversary celebration of the 1962 World’s Fair, organizing an interfaith build as part of the festivities. In discussing the interfaith toolkit, Hunter sees success not primarily in how effectively Habitat can develop an interfaith program, but rather in whether different faith communities themselves sustain interfaith builds.

How did you get started with your Interfaith pilot?

There is an important backdrop to our interfaith work.

The Seattle Space Needle was part of the World’s Fair in 1962. We just finished celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the event. The central theme of the fair was the twenty-first century and the space age. The title of this year’s anniversary celebration was “The Next Fifty.”

During the 1962 World’s Fair, an organization was brought in to build a house of the future. This was at the advent of plywood and all of the electrical gadgets that they anticipated the future house would have, and they built a house as a demonstration of what the space-age house would look like. For the celebration 50 years later, they asked Habitat to come in and bring focus to the region's affordable housing issue and also to the green housing potential for future homes. We jumped at the chance to build a demonstration project that would bring awareness to people around the affordable housing issue and homelessness in the community. We also wanted to use it as a chance to expand our brand and get people thinking about how green, sustainable building practices can be applied to affordable housing.

We started building this house in April (the 50-year celebration went from April through October). We were building at the site all during the six-month celebration effort. We also built a “world house,” using the same structural design that Habitat would use in Cambodia or Southeast Asia. We had the public come in and help us build our own bricks, and we built the world house as an exact replica of what we would do in an international context.

We saw the interfaith build as a perfect addition to the momentum we had gained and would focus attention already rallied around the fiftieth anniversary celebration. We decided that we wanted to do the interfaith build near the end of the fair. The Interfaith Build was basically a two-phase project focused on the “House of the Immediate Future.” It began with phase one of tearing down the walls of the new demonstration site for the House of the Immediate Future (constructed in a manner where we could disassemble easily and then reassemble). Phase two is the rebuilding of the house on a permanent site in the Rainier Valley, which is a very diverse and historically low-income neighborhood. We broke the project up into six days and spread it out over six months. Some Habitats do the interfaith build as a full weekend or full week, but we wanted to try something a little bit different and get people to come out together for one day each month for six months. There are six different faith communities that provide four to five volunteers each build day in both the morning and afternoon. We share a meal together over the lunch hour and construct our interfaith dialogue component at that time.

How have you mobilized congregations of different faiths?

We pulled together a group that we call lead partners, which are congregations who we have had experience working with on interfaith builds or whose faith communities had experience on Habitat builds. We do not have a deep history of relationships with synagogues or mosques in general, so we had to go out and build new partnerships and relationships. We created a group of four mosques, three synagogues, six Christian churches, and an ecumenical, “new thought” church.

How did you get involved in Habitat’s interfaith work?

My entire career has been in the non-profit sector, focused around community engagement, neighborhood issues, and development frameworks. I spent over 10 years with Young Life (a large international outreach program for youth) and 12 years with World Vision as vice president of their U.S. programs. I then ran a nonprofit child welfare agency called Olive Crest, focused on the Northwest region. After four years, I decided to move on, and I contacted an old friend: Marty Kooistra, executive director of the Seattle South King Habitat Chapter. He asked me to be involved as a consultant while Habitat went through a merger process. I worked with Marty to pull together some of the programmatic work during the merger and helped with some of the merger processes.

Both of the Seattle historical Habitat affiliates (now merged into one) had a series of interfaith activities. I supervised a young woman who headed the interfaith project. When she moved on from Habitat in September, I took on the role of facilitating the interfaith build in the interim until the dust settled after the merger.

While I do not have an extensive background in interfaith work, I do have a long history of working with faith organizations in the area regarding community development initiatives. I have done ecumenical work with a number of Christian groups, so I come to the position with a long experience in trying to put frameworks together to achieve joint objectives.

My current role in the organization as vice president of development and external relations, includes the faith relations piece.

How did the interfaith pilot project begin?

I was involved in the pilot from the very beginning and assisted in developing the original design. The concept was based on a demonstration project that we were already building. I worked with the former faith relations associate on the initial recruiting and played a role in the design of the project. I have been part of the implementation from the start. At this point we have had one build-date, the first of six that we have planned.

What is the size of your Habitat affiliate?

Historically there had been three different affiliates operating in King County, which is primarily a large urbanized region with some rural parts as well. Eight years ago two of the three affiliates merged, and the recent merger was to finally bring all under one roof. Both affiliates were healthy and productive before the merger. They each built approximately 15 to 25 units per year. The merger was not necessitated by any crisis, but it was an opportunity for the two operations to come together resulting in a common voice, message, and taking advantage of the economies and efficiency.

We will probably do about 30 units this year when you combine repairs, rehabilitative work, and new construction. We will also be working to balance the historical cultural differences between the Seattle, South King, and East King offices. South King serves an older urban context with more blue-collar neighborhoods. In contrast, East King County is typically made up of more affluent, suburban communities and followed a more traditional Habitat model. The South King affiliate did more neighborhood revitalization and rehabilitative work. These different approaches were driven by the context of each affiliate.

As we merge them together we will have about $5 to $6 million in our annual operating budget with about $30 million in assets. We are in the top five affiliates across the country in terms of annual operating budget and assets.

Organizationally, what prompted the mergers?

First, there was confusion among our constituents related to our messaging. Donors found that they lived in one affiliate service area but worked professionally in another. There was competition for buildable land, in-kind resources, and donor dollars. The service area boundaries were quite hazy, which created competition between affiliates. For instance if the development department from one affiliate was asking a company for resources, a week later the neighboring affiliate would ask the same question. The donor would respond in these situations by saying, “Why don’t you guys work together and come to us with a more unified request?” We decided that it would make sense to get on the same page and be one unified affiliate. We wanted to have the same marketing, communications, fundraising, and in-kind development strategies. The real hope was to take advantage of the existing staff and resources and create a more efficient approach.

The merger aims to lead with a clear message: grow mission impact, operate more effectively, and engage more stakeholders for mission work. There is also an affiliate to the north in Snohomish County and one to the south in Pierce County. Long-term work there could offer additional opportunities to better coordinate and take advantages of shared services related to administrative and financial processes.

What are the main issues on housing in your city or county? Which do you focus on as an institution?

The city of Seattle has a challenge with affordable housing, especially in the urban core. I heard recently that over the past few years Seattle public schools have had some real challenges finding qualified teachers, in large part because people cannot afford to live in a neighborhood close to where they will be teaching. We have very high real estate prices, and in many cases the incomes cannot match the cost of living. This forces people to live outside the core of the city. One of the challenges of the East King affiliate was that they could not find land to build on in the areas that are in the shadows of companies like Microsoft with high-priced real estate. There was no affordable land to build on. The land that they were able to get access to was way out in the rural areas where there was not much market demand or appropriate services for the families we serve.

What can Habitat do about the challenge of high real estate prices?

Several organizations are working on setting up land trusts which set aside land into perpetuity for affordable housing. We can support this work by advocating for the issues through policy and legislation. In collaboration with these organizations we can start to carve out some areas that can be set aside long-term for affordable housing. Also, we need to leverage our brand in a more powerful way to aid advocacy efforts for improving policies for state and county funding.

On the private side we can also start working toward philanthropic sources that can buy up land when it is available and begin to put it into land trusts. The challenge is that no Habitat affiliate has enough private capital to make a significant dent in some of those issues. We may be able to afford 10 to 15 units here or there, but there are thousands of units needed to meet the demand.

In the South King County market, there tend to be working-class neighborhoods and communities, specifically just south of Seattle in the area that makes up the South Valley Cities. The communities are Federal Way, Auburn, Renton, and Pacific, to name a few. All of these communities are historically good neighborhood stock, but Seattle is at risk of losing them even though they were built in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The communities are now asking Habitat to come in and revitalize their neighborhoods and repair their homes. We are working in a neighborhood right now that was an old housing development of the Agency on Housing and Urban Development, seeking to buy some of these units out of foreclosure or on the open market. We would then spend $30,000 to $40,000 on critical repairs and rehabilitation, and then put Habitat homeowners into the homes. The mayor of Auburn said last week, “My city doesn’t need more new affordable housing. What my city has is 25 to 30 years of work for Habitat to come in and rehab existing housing and make it available for people in need of affordable housing.” Along those lines, there is a lot of work that we should be doing around critical repair, stabilization, and rehabilitation that can keep families in their homes or bring new families in to help stabilize the neighborhoods.

Raw real estate is very hard to come by: it is very competitive in the affordable housing market and therefore a real challenge for the Habitat business model. It has to be contextualized and affiliates have to shape their model differently depending on what local policies exist.

What is the faith character of your affiliate both institutionally and operationally?

Based on what I have seen over the past eight to nine months, our constituents (including board and staff) in general tend to be from a Judeo-Christian framework. The majority of the people involved in the work would embrace traditional Judeo-Christian values and practices and are supportive of the HFHI core documents. They tend to be on the moderate to liberal side of the Christian spectrum. They don’t tend to be evangelical or very verbal about their faith or practices, but instead are people who “get out and do.” Habitat people are doers. They get out and build on Saturdays as an expression of their faith. They volunteer as an expression of their faith.

We have historically been called one of the least-churched regions of the country. As few as 33 percent of the population find themselves practicing some sort of formal religion. Northwesterners are viewed as the wild and woolly people who left the institutional frameworks of the east coast. With that foundation, we tend to be more accepting of other people’s practices. There is not as much cultural pressure to fit into a set framework.

As an organization we do not tend to have as much diversity on the staff or the board as we need to or would like to. There are a number of people who say that they are not of the Christian persuasion, but call themselves agnostic, “new thought,” or Universalist. This has created some tension for the core documents that we use as an organization. I think it’s clear that the national organization wants us to be transparent about what our origins are and who we are, and the new merged organization is pushing in this direction as we line up with HFHI.

We also have a very diverse and growing population of immigrants in the King County area. We have a very large Muslim population arriving at an expanding rate. We have a very large Eastern European population as well, and a very large Asian population. All of those cultures bring a very diverse and rich cultural expression with them.

How has the staff at your affiliate received the interfaith project?

Everyone is supportive of this kind of work and of the philosophy behind it. Our staff is certainly in favor of a project that stewards our brand and enables us to provide an environment and context for these projects. However, the effort to implement a project of this scope does put pressure on the organization in terms of people’s responsibilities. The staff is being asked to mobilize and supervise large groups, and that adds pressure in the day-to-day. But, philosophically, everyone is excited about what this can offer. It is hard work and takes time to build durable and trusting relationships.

Where do the demographic groups in your region originate?

I do not have exact figures, but there are a lot of Muslims coming from Eritrea and Somalia. When I look at our Habitat families, those countries come up quite a bit despite their small size.

In the 1970s after the Vietnam War we had a huge influx of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Thai people coming to the area. Those countries account for many of the larger populations.

Are there tensions surrounding faith in the Seattle area?

There has not been any distinct lightning rod-type incident. Coming out of 9/11, there was the issue of how people perceive our Muslim brothers and sisters plus an overall lack of understanding of differences. How to understand the Muslim context and culture continues to be a huge blind spot for the whole region. What we see in the Middle East with Jewish and Muslim communities is another reminder that we have a long way to go around this issue.

Some of our faithful volunteers coming from a more traditional perspective make comments such as, “I’d sure like to see the Habitat houses that we work on go to American families.” Those are loaded statements. You have to ask: do they mean that they want Habitat homes to go only to white people or to non-Muslim people? Comments like that highlight issues that are fraught with bias and misunderstanding. We see faith and interfaith builds as a wonderful opportunity to bring people together, have meals together, work together, serve together, and ultimately promote understanding.

As we all know, these are not issues that are going to change quickly. It’s hard work, and it takes a long time and requires relationship building. That is why we thought the practical metaphor of tearing down the walls and rebuilding was so valuable.

What is your general plan of action to integrate interfaith in your build efforts?

We get a huge lift from a partnership with Lisa Gustaveson who directs a project study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at Seattle University. The name of the study is “Faith, Family, and Homelessness.” She is bringing together partners from similar areas of the groups that we are targeting. We have struck up a collaborative relationship with her, and she is helping drive people to us and vice versa.

What has been the role of the interfaith toolkit that Habitat has developed?

The toolkit focuses on both builds and on advocacy. I described the interfaith build work earlier. We are just starting to talk about the advocacy piece. We built the steering group who participated in a series of meetings and conference calls. Now we are doing the implementation of getting these faith groups on site together. On the first build in November, we had a Muslim faith representative talk about what it means to be hospitable to Muslims and how to understand the culture and customs in order to understand and work together more effectively. We will have an experience like that on each of the build days around a meal together.

In terms of the advocacy piece, we do not necessarily want to start a new advocacy group. We will put advocacy at the end of the project and will have sessions on our April and May builds. We will use those sessions as opportunities for education on affordable housing issues and issues related to homelessness. We will focus on helping people to understand those issues. We will also discuss other advocacy groups and groups that are already operational and focused on these issues. We will encourage participants in our interfaith builds to get involved with those groups where it is appropriate and based on where it is appropriate. At this point we do not think it is prudent to start our own advocacy group, but rather to connect people with what is already happening in and around our city.

Much of this process is relational. You cannot just go in and drop a toolkit or set of tools on a community. There is hard work in working with people and developing relationships. The big challenge is to discover what is the capacity of the staff to make these things happen. There is always turnover in Habitat staff and certainly stability issues in many faith communities. It feels like you are always learning about a new person who comes in and out of this relational mix between faith communities and Habitat. We need to figure out how the organization, both as an international and local entity, can make commitments that create stability and long-term plans. Five years of interfaith work can take a massive step backwards if the one person who has been doing all of this work decides to move on and there is no sharing of institutional knowledge.

Has your affiliate found the dates and benchmarks in the Interfaith Toolkit to be helpful?

We are in a place right now where much of our work is focused on building relationships with the faith communities themselves. We are not yet at the place where we can begin to share these tools and make them accessible to all of these faith groups.

The long-term vision for this is that every 12 to 18 months we will think about the next build. With that in mind, it is the next build where we would start to use some of these tools and use them to take the next step. Thus at this point I do not think we have time to utilize some of the great resources in the toolkit. We are focusing on the elements of being together, asking questions, and building trust until we get to the next programmatic level. My sense is that we will be able to expose our partners to the toolkit in the back half of the project. Also, as a merged organization, we will be entering into a strategic planning process which will determine our appetite for interfaith initiatives. That will be forthcoming.

What do you think would be a reasonable way to measure whether or not the project has been successful?

One is whether people or communities want to do the project again. For instance, if we were to do a survey and ask if participants would be involved, lead, guide, or steer the project the next time, that would be helpful in indicating the level of support moving forward.

My belief is that Habitat should not be the center of interfaith, but we should be a partner that leverages our platform as a facilitator and engagement tool of what the faith groups want to do. I want to look back at the end of implementation and ask each faith community how this project has helped them to get where they want to go. That is what is going to sustain these kinds of activities. It should ultimately be used to help them to take the next step of what they want to do as a community. It should not be on the shoulders of Habitat to continue doing interfaith builds. I would be looking for indicators of how these faith traditions are now engaging issues of housing and homelessness and how their church budget has changed over the years to be more reflective of Habitat issues.

Opens in a new window