With his hands tucked in the front pockets of his black slacks, Michael Stegman strolls up a street near a Chapel Hill public-housing community. His brown eyes catch on a line of one-story homes — their chipped paint, overgrown bushes, and neglected lawns. Stegman pauses when he arrives at a tall, two-story house that’s just been built by EmPOWERment, Inc., a non-profit organization in Chapel Hill that rents and sells homes to working-class families. Without a droop in his ever-straight posture, he turns to face the beige home framed by recently planted shrubs and seeded grass. Stegman, chair and professor of public policy at UNC-Chapel Hill, stares at the house in silence for about a minute before offering his thoughts in a voice of temperance that never wavers, even during hours of conversation. “Three bedrooms. A modern kitchen. Central air conditioning. A front porch,” he says. “This is terrific.” In the home, he says, he sees an America he craves to see repeated in neighborhood after neighborhood across the nation. He sees opportunity.

To Stegman, America means “having a chance to own a home and to build assets and pass on these assets to your children so they can have a better life than you did.” But more than forty years ago, he says, he didn’t always see opportunity for all Americans.

Imagine 1963, he says. He’s a recent graduate of Brooklyn College, he’s about to marry the girl he met in a high school Spanish class, and he’s in need of a job. In the specter of the Vietnam War, he has a draft status of 1-A and can be called to service at any moment. The private industry stays away from hiring such men. So he takes the civil service exam, he passes, and he accepts a job as a social worker in Brooklyn, his hometown.

The stark places of New York” is what Stegman recalls seeing during his eight or nine months as a social worker. He’s full of descriptions of these stark places — the bribes of steaks he’s offered from a landlord, the radiators he finds dangerously hidden behind closed doors, and the tenants who share their homes with hens and roosters and rats. As a social worker, Stegman says, he’s seen the government’s limitations in providing services for working families. “We didn’t have financial education programs. We didn’t have training programs,” he says. “We didn’t have real opportunities for families.”

Then imagine 1968, he says. He’s in Baltimore when riots erupt following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. There, he says, he sees “the anger within the black community, and the pain and suffering on their faces that neighbors caused their own neighbors.”

You are a collection of your experiences,” he adds, “and these were extraordinary experiences.”

These experiences drove Stegman to devote his career to creating wealth and opportunities for poor communities, to found and direct Carolina’s Center for Community Capitalism, and to serve in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) during two presidential administrations. “My career,” he says, “really boils down to sharing the benefits of what America is.”

Stegman channeled his frustrations from his experiences in the 1960s into his early writings. For example, for his Housing Investment in the Inner City: The Dynamics of Decline, published in 1972 and written during his years as an assistant professor at Carolina, Stegman interviewed landlords of inner-city housing units in Baltimore. Through the perspective of the landlords, he presents an investigation of poverty by focusing on the investment climate in inner cities. “…[W]hile investors generally agree that eliminating vandalism is the most important contribution that the city can make toward improving the status of the inner-city market,” he writes in Housing Investment, “this problem is part of a larger picture that involves employment opportunities, drug addiction, social disorder, and the entire range of social service needs of an urban population.”

Such early work garnered Stegman a reputation as a housing-policy expert and took him to Washington in 1979 and again in 1993, when he served as the assistant secretary for policy development and research.

Throughout the first Clinton Administration, Stegman drafted welfare and housing-reform policies during two government shutdowns and battled for HUD’s survival at a time when the Republican Contract for America, under former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, fought to eliminate a Cabinet-level agency. When the National Journal named Stegman one of the one hundred most influential policymakers in 1997, the journal wrote: “Stegman came up with the facts, figures, and housing strategies that allowed then-Secretary Henry G. Cisneros to rescue HUD from the chopping block.”

To help save HUD, Stegman and colleagues engineered a public-housing reform plan to demolish about a hundred-thousand mostly vacant public-housing units, give more flexibility to local housing agencies, and use financial incentives to encourage builders and lenders to offer private housing opportunities for poorer individuals. Home-ownership rates during the first Clinton Administration increased by about 65 percent. But by the end of the first term, he felt like a “tube of toothpaste.” “You keep giving and giving,” he says, “and you begin to feel that you’ve given all you’ve got.”

In the summer of 1997 he returned to Chapel Hill — a place he never expected to call home.

When Stegman completed his doctoral work in planning at the University of Pennsylvania in 1966, a mentor there suggested he interview for a teaching position at Carolina.

Stegman was unsure about Carolina at first. At the time, he had never traveled farther south than D.C., and acquaintances from New York schools were advising him, “That’s fine if you want to go there and get your training. Then you can come back for the big leagues.”

Carolina had some concerns about Stegman as well. When he interviewed with John Parker, former head of planning at Carolina, Parker told him: “It’s awfully quiet in Chapel Hill. I once had a graduate student who had a nervous breakdown because of the quiet.

You think you can stand the quiet?” Parker asked.

Stegman, in a Brooklyn accent that hasn’t quite left him, answered: “We’ll give it a try, though I can’t guarantee anything.”

After the interview, Stegman told himself he’d stay at Carolina only long enough to make sure no one ever called Carolina just a training ground for planning again. “I never thought in a million years I would come South for a teaching job, and then to stay for nearly forty years,” he says.

When he left Washington for the second time in 1997, he was an interview away from not returning to Carolina. He had been recruited by several other schools for positions as dean. At least one offer went far enough that realtors began searching for homes for Stegman in the area near the school. But during an interview with several of the school’s faculty, he says he “got too excited” when the faculty began describing their research.

They were doing what I wanted to be doing,” he says. “In order to have that chance to develop policy (in Washington), I gave up writing and research, which is what I really missed.”

Besides, Carolina endowed Stegman with an opportunity to create a research center.

It was important for us to keep Mike here because he is very influential and brings great recognition to this university,” says John Kasarda, director of Carolina’s Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. “Mike is a very serious person; some might say stoic at times. But underneath that surface is a great warmth and a rich sense of humor.”

Kasarda says Stegman needed an environment that would allow him “to make a difference for people and communities.” So he proposed that Stegman develop a plan for a center that would be based at the Kenan Institute, which is part of the Kenan-Flagler Business School.

The day or so before Kasarda was to present a proposal to the institute’s board of trustees, Stegman took out one sheet of paper and developed his vision. The last thing he wrote down was the center’s name — the Center for Community Capitalism, which comes from Richard Taub’s Community Capitalism: The South Shore Bank’s Strategy for Neighborhood Revitalization.

Through his experiences, Stegman says, it became clear that a partnership between the government and the private sector must exist to improve the living conditions of lower-income people. The term community capitalism, he says, “harnesses the energies and resources of the private sector to attract capital to rebuild and revitalize communities.”

Today, the research center employs six full-time staff and manages about ten million dollars in funded projects that focus on the intersection of community development and private enterprise. Currently the center, for example, combines the interests of businesses and governments to attract more capital to enable working families to become homeowners.

Stegman also remains active in public policy.

The second Clinton Administration, for example, realized they could save about a hundred million dollars a year by electronically depositing funds in civil service retirees’ bank accounts. But one thing they neglected, Stegman says, was that about one-quarter of families with incomes under twenty thousand dollars, including civil service pensioners, do not have bank accounts. This oversight fueled his Savings for the Poor: The Hidden Benefits of Electronic Transfer Funds.

In Savings, published in 1999, Stegman outlines the banking behavior of low-income people and urges the government to electronically distribute other government services such as welfare funds.

He followed up the book by testifying before Congress on behalf of the First Accounts Act, which provides grants to financial institutions that create services to attract people into the banking system. Today, there are fifteen grantees across the nation, and the government delivers all food stamps through a debit card.

Stegman also suggests in his book that the government provide tax credits to financial institutions that offer Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), which help families save money through matching funds. He drafted a Savings for Working Families Act, which would finance a national IDA program, with U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman. Though the act has not passed both houses of Congress, the legislation remains alive. President George W. Bush incorporated parts of the Savings bill into his CARE Act, which would make $450 million available in IDA tax credits. Passing CARE, Stegman says, could result in the creation of more than three hundred-thousand IDAs.

I haven’t lost hope that the germ of an idea that came out of that book will see the light of day,” he says.

Thinking back on his work, Stegman recalls, with a chuckle, the day he told his parents of his plans to enter the field of planning. “My son the doctor. My son the lawyer. My son the planner?” his mother responded.

[My parents] weren’t too sure what a planner did,” he says, “but they were very supportive of education, even though they weren’t highly educated. Their support, and the influence of teachers and professors and experiences, that’s how I got here.”

Here Stegman stands on a lot of land in Chapel Hill and stares at a pleasant, two-story house built for a working-class family. Forty years ago, when he first arrived at Carolina, on this property stood a “shotgun shack” in a neighborhood that had no sewers and no clean water. “Things are certainly different today,” he says.

But all across the nation, he says, working-class families are still being denied the chance to own a home and build wealth. “There are families who are doing everything we are asking them to do and who are playing by the rules, but they don’t have the resources to raise their children,” he says. About one-third of families maintain no savings and no financial assets.

And so, Stegman, sixty-four, continues to strive to help these families realize a vision of America where all families have the chance to own a home and build assets.

He doesn’t know when or what the next step in his career will be. He’s never been the type to plan ahead. He never expected to be a social worker. He never expected to be a planner. He never expected to be at UNC-Chapel Hill.

I never say what my next step is because it’s not calculated,” he says. “It’s following an inner voice into where I think I can make the most difference.

And my hope,” he adds, “is that more and more families can really share in the benefits of America.”

Cherry Crayton was formerly a staff writer for Endeavors.