The Impossible Takes a Little Longer

Housers catch flak from every side. Public funders wonder when nonprofit organizations that build housing for families too poor to buy or to rent on the open market are ever going to get their production counts up and their unit costs down. Private foundations worry whether their grantees will ever become self-sufficient, depending less on them for operating support.

Advocates for tenants demand housing with lower rents. Advocates for persons with disabilities demand housing with accessibility and services. Advocates for the homeless demand housing for the poorest of the poor.

Activists in neighborhoods where nonprofit housers have never set foot vigorously fight to keep it that way. Activists in neighborhoods where housers are already at work vociferously insist on lower density and larger units for “responsible homeowners” rather than for subsidized renters. And armchair warriors like me blithely chide community land trusts, limited equity cooperatives, and other developers of shared equity housing for not being bolder in sticking up for themselves, trumpeting the virtues of the tenures they champion.

It takes a thick skin and stout heart to do this work. Housers are, in fact, among the bravest people I know. They are the community development counterparts of the Seabees of yester-year. No, I don’t mean those lusty Broadway baritones in South Pacific who never seemed to have anything more serious to do than bouncing merrily across the stage singing “Ain’t Nothing Like a Dame.” What I have in mind are the rough and ready construction crews who carved landing strips out of jungle terrain, jerry-rigged harbors on coral reefs, and pushed heavy-duty roads across mountains and swamps, dodging hostile fire while lacking essential supplies. The Seabees were masters at making do.

They also sported far and away the best unit motto of the Second World War, one that captured both the audacity of their mission and the cocky competence of those who carried it out: “The difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer.”
To suggest a resemblance between these intrepid builders of WW II and the nonprofit builders of today is not to presume equivalent dangers. Bodily harm is not customarily counted among the occupational hazards of affordable housing development (although some of my colleagues might disagree, especially those who work in the roughest neighborhoods rehabilitat-ing former crack houses or fighting criminal landlords who would rather torch a building than bring it up to code).

Dedication, not danger, is the common thread. Nonprofit housers, like the Seabees of yore, share a wary acceptance of doing a thankless job in a harsh environment. They share a weary familiarity with long odds and short supplies. They, too, are masters at making do. 

And day by day, they do the difficult. Maybe not “at once,” but steadily and tenaciously they get things done for their communities. They develop a capital-intensive product for low-income people on high-risk sites that no for-profit developer in his right mind would ever touch, while threading their way through a virtual maze of competing demands and contradictory goals. Besieged by the nit-picking of their funders, the nattering of their allies, and the NIMBY-ism of their neighbors, they provide housing in the present for families too poor to carry projects burdened heavily with debt. They build for the future, “over-improving” residential projects to ensure higher energy efficiency and lower maintenance costs. Many stay in the deal long after construction is done to preserve the housing’s affordability, to protect its condition, and to prevent foreclosures. Understanding there is no such thing as a “self-enforcing” deed covenant, ground lease, or lien, they diligently watch over the homes they have helped to create; they stand behind the families they have helped to boost into secure rentals or homeownership. In the words of Connie Chavez, former director of the Sawmill Community Land Trust in Albuquerque, “We are the developer that doesn’t go away.”

These are the mountains and swamps of a houser’s precarious passage across difficult terrain. They come with the territory. Unfortunately, they seldom come with the big bucks required to budge them, bridge them, or bulldoze them out of the way.  Nevertheless, despite decades of decline in public funding for affordable housing, with little money for development and even less for stewardship, nonprofit organizations continue to accomplish their mission. Somehow, they find a way to succeed.  

Sometimes, of course, they do not succeed. Housing development is a risky business, even without having to cope with the particular demands and special challenges that are a nonprofit houser’s daily fare. Doing affordable housing is like holding a fist-full of two-headed snakes. No matter how proficient you are, sooner or later you’re going to get bit. 

I watch from the sidelines, marveling at the fortitude it takes to keep showing up, to keep making do, to keep beating the odds year after year. I wonder at the forbearance it takes, faced with so much carping about the quantity and quality of their work, for nonprofit housers not to throw down their tools and walk away like the insulted farm laborer in a Robert Frost poem: “The hand that knows his business won’t be told to do work better or faster.”

But they don’t. They stay in the field, working through days of sun and rain. More remarkable still, the best of them stay to listen, sifting through an unremitting tangle of criticism for the occasional kernel that might improve their transparency, accountability, or performance. 

Such is the fate and forte of our nonprofit housers. Already doing the difficult, they are asked to do more. Then they figure out a way to do that too. We shouldn’t be surprised, however, if that slows them down a bit. We shouldn’t be impatient waiting for them to add all the bells and whistles to underfunded projects that their backers, critics, and colleagues demand. After all, the impossible takes a little longer.

(Photo by U.S. Navy Seabee Musuem CC BY)

John Emmeus Davis is a partner and co-founder of Burlington Associates in Community Development, a national consulting cooperative specializing in the development of policies and programs promoting permanently affordable, owner-occupied housing. He was the housing director for Burlington, Vermont, in the mayoral administrations of Bernie Sanders and Peter Clavelle. Davis has taught housing policy and neighborhood planning at Tufts University, New Hampshire College, the University of Vermont, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


  1. As ED for Northern Ocean Habitat for Humanity I humbly appreciate your genuine understanding of the world that we choose to walk in every day. Between the “NIMBY” neighbors, the shortness of funding resources, the legislative bureaucracy we choose to hear the cries of the working poor that deserve to live in better housing….thus like the Seabees we carry on with broad shoulders and warm hearts!


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