This is the first in an occasional series of Q&As with Jewish influentials in the world of philanthropy.
Roland Lewis has worked as Habitat for Humanity New York City’s executive director for the last decade, overseeing the organization that has built 170 homes in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens for working families in need of permanent housing. There are another 70 homes in development. When he started at Habitat NYC, it had an annual budget of $350,000. Lewis has grown it to a budget this year of nearly $10 million. Though no one at the Habitat headquarters could say for sure, Lewis may be the only Jewish executive director of an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, which describes itself as “an ecumenical Christian housing ministry.” Lewis, a married father of four who lives with his family in Brooklyn, where they attend a Conservative synagogue, has just taken a new job. Next month he’ll become president and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, a consortium of 300 organizations working to improve waterfronts in New York City and New Jersey.
While preparing to leave Habitat, he took some time to speak with The Jewish Week about the group, the challenges of building housing for poor New Yorkers in the midst of a citywide luxury housing boom, and about being a Jew at the helm of a Christian organization.
The Jewish Week: The Habitat for Humanity image is of volunteers building entire houses from the ground up. How does the program work here?
Roland Lewis: Paid contractors build the shell and put in the plumbing and electric, and volunteers build everything from the studs in. Building the superstructure of a three- or four-story building can’t be done with volunteers, and we have to comply with New York City housing codes. We usually have between 400 and 600 volunteers per project. We finish our projects in 10 to 16 months, depending on the size. Volunteers do sheet rocking, carpentry, insulating and painting. Who are your volunteers?Anyone who wants to and is at least 16. They contact the affiliate to schedule a date. (habitatnyc.org)
Are many from faith groups? From synagogues?
Many are from corporations, which come out to have their employees do volunteer work and as part of team-building days. We have schools and civic organizations, sororities and individuals sometimes. It used to be half from faith groups, but now it’s 30 or 35 percent. It’s mostly church groups, but we’ve had synagogues, Hindus, Buddhists and mosques as well. For our capital campaign (which raised $1.7 million several years ago) large chunks came from Central Synagogue and Temple Emanu-El, and there were contributions from B’nai Jeshurun, Rodeph Sholom and the Park Slope Jewish Center.
What are some challenges of building housing for the poor in New York City?
Land and money are right up there. Many groups build rentals, but Habitat’s unique way builds home ownership for lower income people with 45 to 80 percent of the median income for New York City. For a family of four, that means $30,000 to almost $50,000 a year. These are working families. They have to be living in deteriorated or overcrowded housing, or spend over 50 percent of their income on housing. It’s a sweat equity program, and recipients contribute 300 hours per adult member of the household. Their sweat equity is their down payment, and owners take affordable mortgages. For the 170 homes we’ve built until now we originated the mortgages, but going forward homes will have private mortgages. We’ve been a change agent for Habitat, which did not charge interest. We’re lowering our purchase prices and capitalizing the interest. This way we can get construction loans, and as families purchase their homes we’re able to leverage that capital and build more. This is innovative financing for Habitat, but it’s the way the rest of the world does business.
How do you obtain properties to build on?
Some have been through [the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development], but the vast majority are from the City of New York, which sells them to us for $1. They’re usually abandoned.
How has the luxury housing boom in New York City impacted Habitat’s work?
One of the great challenges with the real estate boom currently is that the city has disposed of all of its land, and finding a new and robust pipeline will be a challenge for my successor. Under [Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani the city auctioned off a fair amount of property to speculators and developers. Especially under [Mayor Ed] Koch, [Mayor David] Dinkins and now Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg, the vast majority of city holdings have been used for public benefit purposes, especially affordable housing. We have another 70 or so homes in the pipeline and enough land for the next two or three years.
How has being Jewish impacted your work at Habitat NYC?
I’ve sort of been a poster child for diversity, viewed as a rare breed. Among my colleagues in New York it’s relatively a non-issue. But in the larger Habitat community, I’ve been put in a position where I’ve had to educate some of my colleagues. They’ll be curious about how Jews think about the obligation to give, and I’ll tell them that the root of the word tzedakah is tzedek, the word for justice. One or two silly things have happened with people from other affiliates, but nothing terrible. Hoping for my conversion to Christianity, someone introduced me to someone else as “a great guy if only he’d dip in the water.” That was humorous but awkward. I said, “I appreciate the thought and would welcome your conversion to Judaism as well.”
Is Habitat NYC a “Christian housing ministry,” as the Web site for Habitat for Humanity International describes it?
We’re trying to build housing for everybody and with everybody. Sometimes that gets mixed up by our friends in Georgia (where Habitat for Humanity International is based). I respect and embrace the fact that the founder is Christian, but to accomplish our mission we must find different vocabulary and be intentional about spreading it to others. I want people to be involved with the housing issue. They should come out for a day as a volunteer building a home, but also be involved with the larger cause that everyone should have a decent home to live in. The idea that everyone should have a decent place to live is not necessarily a Christian idea; it’s not a Jewish idea or a Hindu idea. It’s a universal message. We’ve had people of all faiths and of no faith engaged with our work. I don’t care how you get to our door, as long as you get there.