Heroes of the Homeless Crisis: How Steve Hilton of Meritage Homes helped build almost 2,000 homes to help the homeless community

I think one of the most impactful things each of us can do is take responsibility. We can play an active role in making a difference, by first understanding the root causes of the majority of homelessness in America. By getting engaged with the issue, understanding it at the community level and realizing its complexities, we are in a place where we can build awareness and provide actionable solutions.

Additionally, collaboration is monumental in making a difference, and I have seen this first-hand. For instance, by mobilizing the community to give back through simple but effective campaigns like asking our customers to kick in an additional $25 when closing on a home to help the Arizona Housing Fund, or by partnering up with our peers to think up broad, sustainable solutions to homelessness. Working together is vital to combat an issue of this size and complexity. Everyone deserves a safe place to live, and we can all find a way to contribute to these efforts.

As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Hilton.

Steven J. Hilton is the Chairman and CEO of Meritage Homes, the seventh largest public homebuilder in America, headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona. Hilton co-founded Meritage Homes in 1985 and has been its Chairman and CEO since its inception. He is considered an expert innovator in the homebuilding industry and also serves on the Board of Directors for Western Alliance Bancorporation, volunteers on boards for Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, TGEN Foundation and the National Pancreatic Cancer Advisory Council, and is a Foundation Trustee for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Scottsdale.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?

I’ve lived in Arizona since I was 12 years old. My father was an immigrant and came to this country after World War II as a holocaust survivor. Growing up, my family was not able to be very philanthropic, given the circumstances my father came from, which left money tight.

As I got older, I was fortunate to experience success early on in my business career and wanted to give back to the community that supported me. I grew up here, attended the University of Arizona, and co-founded Monterey Homes, the predecessor company to Meritage Homes. My strong ties to the local community have driven my philanthropic inclinations for more than 30 years, both financially and by volunteering my time. Through my leadership, I aim to inspire others to do the same and give back. It’s the right thing to do and each one of us has the ability to make a difference.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?

Yes, I can pinpoint this to childhood friend of mine who is now a senior corporate banking leader and was my catalyst for inspiration. He is very passionate about eradicating homelessness and has been involved for over 25 years with the Arizona Housing Fund, a dedicated-sustainable funding source for nonprofit agencies that build and operate permanent supportive, low-income housing units. I always knew homelessness was a critical issue, but seeing his devotion and commitment to help the homeless inspired and energized me to also give back.

I have since encouraged our team at Meritage Homes to get involved with the Arizona Housing Fund. We are particularly passionate about helping the homeless because it is a natural fit for us. As homebuilders, we are in the shelter business. I have worked in this industry for over 35 years, so housing-related philanthropy is of special interest to me. It allows me to utilize my expertise to further our efforts in helping the most vulnerable in our community get back on their feet by providing them shelter; a safe, healthy environment to call home.

Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

Numerous factors have contributed to the United States’ growing homelessness problem including a lack of affordable housing, poverty, low wages, and unemployment. Many shelters exist today to help combat homelessness by offering these individuals the support and direction they need to find safe housing, have steady income, and access to healthcare and other fundamental resources. Given my particular background in the homebuilding industry, I can speak to the lack of safe, decent, affordable for-rent and for-purchase housing. Particularly within larger cities like Los Angeles and New York, there is not enough housing to support low-income families and individuals, and housing costs continue to exponentially rise.

For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?

There are many influences in play that can contribute to this downward spiral, but a lack of affordable housing consistently is the leading cause of homelessness, according to annual United States Conference of Mayors ‘Hunger and Homelessness Surveys.

According to a recent annual survey by the United States Conference of Mayors, major cities across the country report that top causes of homelessness among families were: (1) lack of affordable housing, (2) unemployment, (3) poverty, and (4) low wages, in that order. The same report found that the top four causes of homelessness among unaccompanied individuals were (1) lack of affordable housing, (2) unemployment, (3) poverty, (4) mental illness and the lack of needed services, and (5) substance abuse and the lack of needed services.

This kind of instability and lack of essential needs being met can quickly drop a healthy young person into a downward spiral, where they are left with limited options, and, ultimately, fall into the cycle of homelessness.

A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?

Homelessness is a complex issue. While housing affordability is a key factor, it is also imperative to consider elements like the safety of the housing community, job availability, wages in relation to cost of living, proximity to public transport, physical and mental health, and an environment that is conducive to long-term success. To top it off, moving itself can be costly and many of the adults who are experiencing homelessness may not have a car or the financial ability to purchase transportation (plane ticket, train ticket, etc). When determining how to approach and solve for homelessness, we must consider the many factors, and realize that each circumstance is unique. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?

I would recommend directing him or her to a local homeless shelter in the metro area, where they can receive shelter along with access to food, medical attention, hygienic needs, and the support and resources needed to help them get back on their feet. Living on the street is not a safe or sustainable option, so motivating a homeless person to work towards a better living solution and receive the care they need is crucial to their recovery and successful integration back into society.

What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?

I would encourage people do the same as I mentioned previously and direct the individual to one of the well-run shelters in the metro area. Shelters and organizations can help offer job skill training and assist in finding opportunities that can lead to a more stable and steady income. Living under a bridge or on the street is not safe for themselves, nor for the city, and there are shelters that are standing by to help.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?

I am proud to share that our collective efforts at Meritage Homes, contributing to the Arizona Housing Fund, has us on the path to building almost 2,000 homes to help this vulnerable population. To amplify efforts further, Meritage Homes is even getting its customers involved in this great cause. When closing on a house, we ask each new homeowner if they would like to contribute $25 towards the Arizona Housing Fund. We’ll be able to build 100,000 homes a year if each of our customers makes this nominal donation. We’re continuing to drive efforts around here to make an impact in our community. It’s amazing to see everyone come together and contribute their time, energy and finances to make a real, measurable difference.

Our goal is to build on this further by getting our peers involved — land developers, realtors, home builders and other housing industry professionals — creating a similar program where we all can play a small part in making a large difference to combat homelessness.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?

People experiencing homelessness are a particularly susceptible group when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, as many are immunocompromised and/or elderly. According to the CDC, these factors may put them at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Couple this with the fact that many homeless care services take place in crowded settings that can lead to the spread of the virus, the potential aftermath on the homeless community is troubling.

As COVID-19 has caused ripple effects throughout all industries, many people have been temporarily distracted from this cause, as we are thinking about the safety of our loved ones, our businesses, and dealing with new pressures. For instance, we had been working with the AZ Housing Fund on a promotional video and other tools to build awareness and drive fundraising, but had to shift our efforts recently to focus on the pandemic’s impact on our personal and professional lives. We remain hopeful and look forward to getting back to this work, as it remains more important than ever, especially in this critical time of a public health crisis.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

The work we do brings me immense pride because our efforts go far beyond monetary value. We build and sell homes, and buying a home is one of the largest and most important decisions a person makes in a lifetime. It feels good to know that we are setting the standard in home construction and design, and leading the way in energy-efficient homes, so our buyers can feel confident with their decisions and live better, smarter and healthier.

I’m also really proud of the culture we’ve built at Meritage Homes. Our team is goal-oriented and success-driven, but also places great energy into giving back to the communities we build and live in. I love having the opportunity to inspire our employees to get engaged and continue to place importance on philanthropic efforts.

It truly takes a village to do what we do, innovating constantly to continue to lead in the industry, and to see the bright minds at every level contribute makes me very proud.

Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?

I try to lead by example and inspire others, in the same way that my childhood friend ignited that spark in me to get involved with the AZ Housing Fund. Some of our employees at Meritage Homes are progressing in the space of volunteerism and taking it upon themselves to donate and spend their time helping others. I think that I can do the most good by encouraging others to volunteer and support the community. We can accomplish so much more when we work together.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

I think one of the most impactful things each of us can do is take responsibility. We can play an active role in making a difference, by first understanding the root causes of the majority of homelessness in America. By getting engaged with the issue, understanding it at the community level and realizing its complexities, we are in a place where we can build awareness and provide actionable solutions.

Additionally, collaboration is monumental in making a difference, and I have seen this first-hand. For instance, by mobilizing the community to give back through simple but effective campaigns like asking our customers to kick in an additional $25 when closing on a home to help the Arizona Housing Fund, or by partnering up with our peers to think up broad, sustainable solutions to homelessness. Working together is vital to combat an issue of this size and complexity. Everyone deserves a safe place to live, and we can all find a way to contribute to these efforts.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

As it relates to housing, there are three legislative areas that we can consider to aid organizations in building more affordable, low-income housing:

The first would be a law that allows for more affordably priced, multifamily developments. There is some building resistance that happens when developers come into an area with plans to build low-income housing communities because people do not want to lower their own home value by falling within that zip code. This is not true. Luckily legislators understand this and more people are beginning to. Legislation can help advance these types of projects to provide more affordable housing.

In some areas there are architectural requirements that are in place to ensure that the homes are aesthetically pleasing, but ultimately these requirements drive up the cost of the home construction, which is passed on to the buyer and renter. Reducing these requirements to reasonable levels, especially in areas with heightened homelessness, can help drive down housing costs across the board.

Rather than evicting low-income tenants, developing legislation that helps housing authorities keep people housed would be immensely beneficial. Some counties (like Aurora housing authority, for example) have tested out housing stability pilots that provide rent grants or subsidies to help the tenant stay housed and save the landlord the cost of finding a new tenant. Not to mention, these anti-eviction strategies help people stay off the streets.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

Seeing progress. We all want to win, and strive to be on the winning team, whether it is in business or philanthropy. There’s all that great energy and enthusiasm when you are winning. And we are winning. Every month, I see the impact being made by our efforts to help the homeless through the AZ Housing Fund. I see it firsthand, and seeing that progress keeps me going.

Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?

In a perfect world, yes, however I don’t know that we will ever be able to fully eradicate homelessness. That being said, I think we can come together a make a huge dent through our combined efforts and common-sense solutions.

As we look at this great social challenge, we must support the different stages of progress. The first is getting people physically off of the street, cleaned up, cared for and connected to resources. Next, we have to help secure employment, housing, and other stability measures. Then, we have to consistently support this progress and help individuals maintain a sustainable, healthy life. Through this cycle, we can help get many people off of the streets and into safe, secure homes.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. The importance of understanding the dynamic of ‘fear and greed’ and the influences they can have on success

2. There is no substitute for ‘getting in the weeds’

3. Trust but verify

4. People make the difference

5. Innovation is rewarded, execution is worshipped

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could inspire a movement, it would be to encourage a stronger partnership between the business sector and the government. Businesses need to do more to collaborate with the government to solve some of the world’s greatest problems, including homelessness. On the inverse, governments also need to increasingly see businesses as part of the solution.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The following is a quote from the renowned General Douglas MacArthur that I live by and deeply believe in: “A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.”

This mantra can apply to your actions in every crisis, and is evergreen, never becoming archaic.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d love to sit down with Winston Churchill. He defined the concept of modern-day leadership and is someone that I admire. Unfortunately, I don’t think he will be available for lunch.

How can our readers follow you online?

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Heroes of the Homeless Crisis: How Steve Hilton of Meritage Homes helped build almost 2,000 homes… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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