Flipping Houses, Bettering Lives

Flipping Houses, Bettering Lives

By Rachel Buttner, BA’03

How do you make business itself function in a way that’s helpful to humanity?

This is the question that Andrew Gustafson, PhD, associate professor of business ethics and society, tackles head on every day through Communion Properties, his real-estate, renovation and management company located in midtown Omaha’s Gifford Park neighborhood.

Raised on a farm in central Nebraska, Gustafson studied and taught at universities across the country before returning to his home state 12 years ago. He took root in Gifford Park to be close to the Creighton campus and continue his interest in buying old buildings. His investment in the community took on new meaning when he met Izzy, who was living in his truck behind one of Gustafson’s properties and asked to stay until the house was rented. Gustafson made him an offer: “I said, ‘Why don’t you live in the house until we rent it out and help me fix it up?’”

With help from Izzy, Jeff, Dino, Blue, Mike, Dick and other homeless and semi-homeless men Gustafson has met and hired over the years, they have rehabbed dozens of houses in the neighborhood.

Many of “the guys” struggle with alcoholism and various uncertainties, but in Gustafson, they find stability. “We can’t enable people,” Gustafson says, but with paid work “we enable them to have power, to make a decision for themselves. It gives them a sense of dignity and a sense of purpose.”

Gustafson recently joined the Economy of Communion (EOC), an initiative founded in 1991 in São Paulo, Brazil, committed to promoting an economic culture focused on a sustainable model of business. “The humaneness of business,” is at the heart, he says. “How do you practice business in a way that isn’t just concerned with money?”

In early February, Gustafson and other members of the EOC faced this complex question during a conference in Rome, culminating in a meeting with Pope Francis. One particular remark resonated with Gustafson: “Capitalism knows philanthropy, not communion. It is simple to give a part of the profits, without embracing and touching the people who receive those ‘crumbs.’” Money is important, but it risks becoming an idol. The pope recognized the EOC’s vision of business — one that helps the poor and marginalized while making money, rather than simply offering charity — and encouraged sharing that vision widely.

“We are thinking humanity the whole way through business. I think that’s what excites my students,” says Gustafson, who teaches an MBA and undergraduate course called Business, Faith and the Common Good and hosts an annual symposium of the same name. “Business is the most important force transforming culture and society — for better or for worse. And we get to be part of it.”

An integrated life is important to Gustafson. Communion Properties allows him to bring together faith and business to make a difference. Balancing dual roles of renovator and social worker, he says that “the guys” make it worthwhile.

“They’re more like family in some ways than an employee,” says Gustafson, who will often find Dino at his kitchen table in the mornings ready to enjoy coffee and conversation. “They make my life better. And I like making their lives better, too, in some small way.”