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Beyond Our Edges: John Steiner – Building Community with Habitat for Humanity

We recently had the opportunity to speak to John Steiner, a Principal Consultant, about his volunteer work as an External Director for the National Board for Habitat for Humanity Canada. Currently in the second year of this three-year term, he shared his thoughts about his work with Habitat, and why he thinks it’s an organization that adds incredible value to the community.

What keeps you busy when you’re not working at Urban Systems?

I’ve been a Director on the National Board of Habitat for Humanity for almost two years now, and it’s been a rewarding experience in many ways. I get to work with some fantastic individuals from across Canada who are committed to importance of providing a ‘home’ for children through home ownership. We use our collective experience to try to make a difference in communities locally and internationally. Being directly involved in the organization, hearing stories about families we’ve served and working on a few build sites have all been very inspiring. I also participated on the Carter Work Project in Edmonton last summer, and then on a build site with Global Village in Portugal with my wife and friends in the fall. As much as I enjoy my role as a Board member, working multiple days on-site alongside the families that will own the homes we are building brings the emotional connection to what we do.

Can you tell us a bit about what Habitat for Humanity does?

Habitat is a non-for-profit agency that aims to bring families into affordable home ownership with a ‘hand-up’ rather than ‘hand-out’. Their model of supporting people in need of housing is what makes Habitat unique. Families apply to participate and must qualify in terms of need, commitment and financial means. Assistance from Habitat comes in many forms (financial support, building labour, materials from donors and mortgage lenders, etc.), yet Habitat families must be financially equipped to take on an affordable mortgage and committed to providing sweat equity in building their home and that of others for at least 500 hours.

John on site at a recent build

What inspired you to volunteer?

When I was a teenager, my father would take my brothers and I around delivering gift hampers to families in social housing a couple times a year – typically Christmas and Thanksgiving – in some of the worst places in Toronto. In most instances, moms (some of them single and abused), dads and their kids—with big smiles—would come to the door to see what we were bringing and welcome us into their small units. After working in the ‘projects’ of Regent Park in Toronto for a summer, managing a community pool later as a teenager, I began to realize that most of these parents and kids would never get out of this place and that things generally got worse for the kids that were growing up in this form of housing complex.

While having a safe and comfortable home is something many of us take for granted, it’s a critical piece of the puzzle that many families with children are missing. Beyond the pride that home ownership can bring to families, Boston Consulting Group quantified the social impacts for Habitat in terms of: increased employment quality; reduced use of food banks; improved health related behaviours; greater engagement in community; and better educational outlook.

Do you approach your work at Habitat with a specific goal in mind?

For me, it’s about kids having a place they can call home and parents being proud of what they themselves are achieving. I’ve now seen that providing decent housing and facilitating home ownership brings both parents and kids a sense of pride and gives them a shot at breaking the cycle of poverty that they live in. If I can do that for a few families while working with Habitat, I’ll feel like I’ve done something big in a very small way.

One of the many families Habitat has worked with to facilitate home ownership

Can others get involved?

Absolutely, I encourage others at Urban Systems to get involved.  I think we can help Habitat have a much bigger impact on our communities and across the country. The Urban Systems Foundation is exploring opportunities to participate on build sites locally. I’m also exploring opportunities for us to provide some advisory assistance on a volunteer basis to some of the Affiliates. There have also been discussions about how Urban Systems could tie into Habitat’s Indigenous Housing Partnership…stay tuned! And of course, anyone can volunteer for builds with their local Habitat Affiliate, work in a local Re-store or perhaps get involved with the Affiliate Board in their community.

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