The Best of Luck

Housing: a New Hope

By Catherine Matusow October 31, 2013 Published in the November 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Mack Fowler and luck have a very complicated relationship. On the one hand, Fowler seems to view luck as the most powerful force in the universe, the author of all things good, at least in his case. When we ask about his great wealth, which he built in the oil and petrochemical industries, Fowler pauses, tinkers for a second with his Miller Lite label, and then assigns full credit to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. “We’ve been really lucky,” he says of his success, and then he says it again. End of story.

On the other hand, as we also discover at the ice house—Mack Fowler has spent a good many waking hours and no small amount of his aforementioned wealth on making sure that luck, which is also the creator of all things bad, does not have the final say. 

Hence his focus for nearly a decade on New Hope Housing, a nonprofit that builds affordable apartments for disadvantaged, low-income, single Houstonians, although the buildings are a far cry from the public housing you see elsewhere. Which is to say they’re modern, good-looking, and full of amenities. 

“We believe that the nature of the place that people live in says something about how they feel about themselves, and how they feel about the society they live in,” says Fowler, the president of New Hope’s board. “And so we go the extra mile, spend the extra dollar.” 

It’s an idea that can be traced through all his charitable efforts—Fowler’s worked with Trees for Houston on freeway and roadway landscaping, for instance (“it was a real desert out there”), and the Quality of Life Coalition, which focuses on everything from city landscaping to parks, trails, graffiti, and abandoned lots.

“I just can’t imagine not wanting the place that I live to be attractive,” Fowler says. “I believe that your environment, that which you experience every day, is an important part of life, for me and fellow citizens.” 

You might think that someone whose passions have made such a dramatic difference to our culture—and who’s worn out several passports during a career that took him around the world many times—would be a tornado of a man, but the 68-year-old Harrison Ford look-alike instead possesses a quiet charisma. He doesn’t appear to want recognition, or credit, the way some of the city’s more, well, high-profile benefactors do. He’s just a lucky guy with a can-do spirit, who wants to spread the luck around. End of story.

The son of an Odessa pharmacist, Fowler is the kind of man who will tell you he went to graduate school but not mention it was at Harvard. The kind who much prefers talking about his two grown kids, or his wife, Cece. (“I married way over my head.… She’s much more famous than I am, in Houston particularly.”) The kind who has helped build nearly a thousand small homes when he could have simply luxuriated in his own large one. 

Next month brings New Hope’s 20th anniversary—which coincides with the opening of its newest property, in North Houston—and a potential new direction for the organization, says Fowler. Its focus may shift to single mothers, say, or some other group on the city’s long list of the needy. In any event, Fowler seems keenly aware of what’s left to do, and of luck’s peculiar calculus: for every man whom fortune favors, there must be a sea of unfortunates, it seems.

“The issue of homelessness and what it means to a person to be homeless, to not have a safe place to live, is an issue that I am hugely sensitive to, and I am emotional about it,” he says. “We are to an immense degree products of randomness in the universe. It’s not hard to imagine trying to survive with substantially different circumstances.” 

Then, of all things, the most public-minded private man we’ve ever had a beer with quotes Joan Baez. “There but for fortune,” he says, “go you or I.”

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