King Harris Talks Family Philanthropy and Channeling His Passion for Supporting Affordable Housing

King Harris Talks Family Philanthropy and Channeling His Passion for Supporting Affordable Housing

Within the first five minutes of our interview in his Wacker Drive office, King Harris reveals much that defines him. Building helpful connections comes second nature to this cerebral civic leader, who uses his wit and substantial resources as broadly as possible.

His playfulness becomes immediately apparent when he points out a photo of his younger “son,” King Harris, Jr. — a rhinoceros born at the Lincoln Park Zoo three years ago.

“He paints with his snout,” Harris declares, his brown eyes twinkling behind professorial glasses. “We could sell one of his paintings for a lot of money at a Contemporary Art Museum gala.” He grins, “He’ll visit your birthday party or fundraiser for the right donation to the Zoo too.”

Turning serious, Harris quickly shares news about the next big thing in Chicago real estate — a tech campus comprising a consortium of top universities — led by the University of Illinois — and surrounding multi-use development on Chicago’s South Side called “The 78.” Harris bemoans that this good news is not more widely known. “That’s one of our city’s problems,” he says. “Chicago does not tell people enough of its good news. And there is a lot of good news here. The developer, Related Midwest, knows what they are doing.” Perhaps he’s dropping an investable idea too?

Harris, 75, is happy in life and talented at navigating complex business, governmental, and philanthropic dynamics. A Harvard College and Harvard Business School grad, he is actively involved in many impactful organizations, including Harris Holdings (his family’s investment company), the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy’s Visiting Committee, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Metropolitan Planning Council, and the Keystone Board of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab (formerly Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago). His wife, Caryn, is equally committed to civic service — particularly in the arts.

But Harris’ true passion is affordable housing. Eighteen years ago, after orchestrating the sale of his family controlled business, Pittway, to Honeywell International for $2 billion, he joined the civic organization Chicago Metropolis 2020 as a senior executive focused on housing. The ideas he helped develop then have blossomed into effective plans for at least 43 Illinois communities now. Our interview focuses on this work.

“Housing is the gateway to other problems in the social service sector,” Harris explains. It’s hard to help anyone move their lives forward when they are homeless or living in dire circumstances. He learned this firsthand as a Peace Corps community organizer working in Chile between 1965 and 1967.

“Safe and sanitary housing was a big issue in the seaside slum where I worked,” he explains. “The Chilean government replaced 150 of those shacks with low-cost housing at higher altitudes.”

After earning his MBA, Harris resumed his affordable housing and community development career by joining the US Anti Poverty Program as a Neighborhood Center Director in Massachusetts for the US War On Poverty program. “When Donald Rumsfeld dismantled that program, I went into the family business.”

Even the family business, Pittway, which sold burglar and fire alarms, helped teach Harris about homes. He rose to CEO and grew it to be the largest fire alarm business in the country before negotiating its acquisition to Honeywell.

“During my first two years on Metropolis 2020, I talked to anyone who had a serious opinion on affordable housing, including State Senator Barack Obama and State Representative Julie Hamos.” He continues, “I also convinced a former mayor, Nancy Firfer of Glenview, to join my work as a full partner. Nancy’s input has been critical to my work ever since.”

To prove his point, Harris also brings Firfer to an event hosted by Make It Better — the National Philanthropy Day Family Foundations Seminar — subsequent to our interview, at which Harris presented on his family’s passion for philanthropy in general as well as his particular affinity for supporting affordable housing for all.

In 2002, Harris authored a major position paper, then joined a team of housing experts to turn it into a long-term plan called “Homes for a Changing Region.” Along the way he has formed strategic collaborations and earned grant money from the Chicago Community Trust and MacArthur Foundation.

“We’ve worked with forward-looking mayors and city councils too,” he says. “The good news is that there are a lot of these in our region too.”

During our interview, Harris’ passion is palpable. He rattles off statistics, terminology, and opportunities so quickly, it’s hard to keep up. But he does make three easy to understand points.

“We need to do focused rehab in Chicago block by block, as in the 51st Ward.” This makes sense — an entire block fixed up looks and feels more inviting than piecemeal rehab.

“The City of Chicago has too many vacant lots that could easily be improved with the right incentives.” No disagreement there.

“We could build a lot of affordable housing units if we kept them at 1,100-1,300 square feet, just like post World War 2.”

At the Family Foundations Seminar, Harris inspired many others with his commitment too. Here, he talks more about where his passion for housing policy originated and why he remains so committed to it.

Harris knows how to work strategically to create maximum impact. He has been doing it his entire adult life. Better homes lead to better lives for families and stronger communities too — extraordinary impact indeed.

Susan B. Noyes is the Founder & Chief Visionary Officer of Make It Better Media Group, as well as the Founder of Make It Better Foundation’s Philanthropy Awards. A mother of six, former Sidley Austin labor lawyer and U.S. Congressional Aide, passionate philanthropist, and intuitive connector, she has served on boards for the Poetry Foundation, Harvard University Graduate School of Education Visiting Committee, American Red Cross, Lurie Children’s Hospital, Annenberg Challenge, Chicago Public Education Fund, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New Trier High School District 203, and her beloved Kenilworth Union Church. But most of all, she enjoys writing and serving others by creating virtuous circles that amplify social impact.