Prepared Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan at the Habitat for Humanity "Thanks a Million" Gala

Mellon Auditorium, Washington DC

Monday, October 4, 2010

Thank you, Jonathan (Reckford), for that warm introduction -- and for your remarkable leadership. And thank you, President and Mrs. Carter.

For nearly three-and-a-half decades, Habitat has been transforming a matter of conscience into calls to action -- one that that has galvanized millions of people around the world to build over 350,000 homes, providing safe, decent, affordable shelter to more than 1.75 million people in 3,000 communities in nearly 90 countries.

Today, you are the largest privately-held homebuilder in the United States.

And in my opinion, there is no better example of the "Third Sector" of non-profits, philanthropies and community development corporations that has emerged in the last quarter century has achieved--and what it has become--than you.

I often think about how when HUD was founded in 1965, it was a time when America's cities were literally burning.

Even a dozen years later -- those fires were still smoldering. I remember -- because I was sitting in Yankee Stadium during Game Two of the 1977 World Series when Howard Cosell broadcast his famous words to millions of viewers across the nation:

"Ladies and gentleman, the Bronx is burning."

Even as an 11 year-old, I could feel the sense of chaos that bubbled close to the surface as the civic bonds that hold communities together frayed to the point of breaking. Arson consumed thousands of buildings, and neighborhoods lost 75 percent of their populations in just 10 years.

Today it's hard to imagine that the now vibrant neighborhoods surrounding the new Yankee Stadium were part of the warzone that was the South Bronx.

To be sure, the local leadership provided by Mayor Koch made a difference. And certainly, new tools from the private sector brought not only new capital to affordable housing but perhaps more importantly, a new sense of discipline that would extend from the way affordable housing is financed to how properties are managed.

But the transformation of the South Bronx wouldn't have been possible without Third Sector partners like Habitat, LISC, Enterprise, local churches and so many others. These organizations, their local chapters and thousands of affiliates not only solved problems at the local level -- they went on to become some of our most innovative housing developers and most important civic institutions.

Today, we've seen that model transform neighborhoods across the country -- as communities increasingly embrace a more holistic approach to neighborhood revitalization that links affordable housing to health and child care, to education, and to workforce and economic development.

And throughout this recent economic crisis, we've seen just how important organizations like Habitat for Humanity have become.

Two years ago Congress created the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to help communities turn foreclosed, vacant properties into the affordable housing families need. But it was only when flexible Third Sector organizations like Habitat, with the expertise and community ties to make a difference on the ground, began to evolve--shifting its strategy from building homes to fixing them up--that we began to see the impact these dollars could make.

Just today, I was at a build in Ivy City here in Washington, where I saw for myself how Habitat's Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative forges partnerships and alliances at the local level and engages the support of whole neighborhoods to develop a common plan of recovery and vision for the future.

I'm proud HUD is the primary funder of that strategy -- having provided Habitat with over $137 million in Neighborhood Stabilization funds through the Recovery Act. It's the second largest grant we made.

But I'm even prouder that more than a funder, today HUD has become a true partner with the Third Sector.

And there's a man here tonight without whom this new way of doing business never would have been possible.

Within weeks of the 1977 World Series, it was President Carter who visited Charlotte Street in the Bronx and compared the wreckage to Dresden after World War II.

As President, he saw for himself how devastating the damage was. But I suspect it was no less devastating for him because he understood how limited the tools were that the Federal government had to respond.

After all, President Carter was the first President to order a "place-based" review of the Federal government that asked each agency to determine whether their policies enabled and encouraged locally-driven, integrated, and place-conscious solutions...or obstructed them.

And until President Obama ordered a similar review in 2009, he was the only President to do so.

And so, maybe we shouldn't be surprised that President Carter would accomplish so much as a private citizen -- returning in 1984 with Rosalynn to New York City where he helped renovate six stories of affordable housing, thus beginning a nearly three-decade association with Habitat for Humanity that includes the internationally recognized Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

We shouldn't be surprised that he would bring together the moral force of philanthropy with the flexibility, focus and boundless energy non-profits, CDCs, and millions of volunteers could offer.

We shouldn't be surprised. But in the Obama Administration, we sure are thankful, because it's precisely the model that he helped develop that we are scaling up today -- in communities from New Orleans to Detroit, in partnership with organizations around the country.

So, thank you, President Carter--and thank you, Habitat for Humanity--tonight, we walk in the shadow you cast.


Ladies and gentlemen, it is an incredible honor for me to introduce a man who embodies the spirit of change -- a champion for peace, human rights, and social justice. The 39th President of the United States--and Habitat for Humanity's most famous volunteer--Jimmy Carter.


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