Genius Grants

I make it a point to read up on each year’s MacArthur Fellows. These MacArthur “Genius Grants” are unlike Nobel Prizes in that they are more often awarded on the strength of what the recipient will accomplish in the future than on the strength of what the recipient did years ago. More importantly, I’ve found at least one Fellow every year whose work has been so inspiring to me that I’ve continued to follow it over the years. The first of these was Dr. Angela Belcher, a professor of Materials Science at MIT. I’ve also been pleased when I see folks whose work I’ve admired recieve the award, such as Saul Griffith, the founder of Squid Labs and David Macauley, the incredible illustrator of “The Way Things Work.”

This year, one of the most inspiring recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship is an agriculturalist named Will Allen. His non-profit, Growing Power, maintains an urban farm in Milwaukee, providing fresh vegetables to the residents of the distressed inner city there. Regular readers here will note that I have a strong interest in urban agriculture and small-lot permaculture, so it is especially rewarding to see the MacArthur Foundation take interest in the kind of project that Will Allen is leading.

The New York Times published a great article about a month back on Will Allen and Growing Power and MAKE magazine has the video of an interview with him.

Charity?

For a long time, I’ve struggled with Habitat for Humanity as a charity. On the face of it, the premise seems pretty worthy: help folks find affordable housing. Over the years, as I’ve thought and researched the subject, I’ve reached the conclusion that on the whole, Habitat for Humanity is likely making life worse for the people it is trying to help.

First and foremost, it appears that Habitat focuses on single family detached dwellings in suburban and exurban subdivisions. While this may not be true of all Habitat affiliates, it appears from my research on local Habitat affiliates and the national website to be generally true. I see this as a cruel prank of sorts on the future homeowner. At a time when it is becoming less and less affordable to live so far outside the city center and less desirable to become more dependent on a car for living, Habitat is offering to folks the false promise of economic independence and middle class lifestyle.

Many writers and publications have taken on this subject, including The Atlantic Monthly and Worldchanging, and the implications are pretty clear. The rising cost of living in suburbia are slowly making these areas unlivable for the people who could just afford to live there. People, like those who are being ‘helped’ by Habitat for Humanity will fare far worse, since they could not have afforded to live there at all.

The opportunity costs that Habitat incurs are high as well. By spending the money and using the land to build low-density housing, they prevent those resources from being used to build more efficient, high-density housing that could have a larger effect on the overall housing market in a region. If Habitat were to make it more affordable to build up the population density in former suburban areas, they could essentially drive the growth of livable, walkable neighborhoods, something that could possibly also make the difference in the cost-effectiveness of public transportation as well.

Further, Habitat focuses on traditionally-built homes. As far as I could tell, no Habitat affiliate makes any particular effort to build highly energy efficient homes. This is a further disservice to the people whom they are trying to help. I would have thought, in particular, that in areas with extremely depressed home prices (e.g. Detroit) Habitat would be working hard to buy and renovate marginal homes to make them more livable and efficient. I saw no such evidence of that on the Detroit affiliate’s web page, at least.

Considering these missed opportunities and disservices, I truly wonder how Habitat continues to attract donors and volunteers. Certainly, there are many opportunities for them in this economic downturn and housing crisis if they can change their model to address them. It may be more difficult for them to make these sorts of changes due to their affiliate structure, but by the same token, that structure might provide a way for particular affiliates to lead the way on their own.