The primal cause: Habitat for Humanity

Nearly three billion people today—half of the world’s population, live on less than two dollars per day. According to World Bank figures, the developing world pays back $13 for every $1 of debt it receives in grants. UNICEF statistics report that 640 million children do not have adequate shelter. Over five million American families live in substandard housing. Over two billion people around the world live in substandard housing. Topping it off, just a few hundred millionaires control as much wealth as some of the poorest nations in the world.

Millard Fuller and his wife Linda recognized some of these welling facts as long ago as in the 1960s. The figures they looked at were different, but the context was the same. Poor populations were getting poorer, people existed without food, clothing or shelter. So they decided to do something about it.

In 1965, the Fullers made a decision to move away from their millionaire lifestyle and devote their energies to God’s work. Millard Fuller had owned a successful direct marketing company. They uprooted and moved to Koinonia Farm, located outside of Americus, Georgia. Koinonia was a grassroots rural economic development program that addressed local needs. It included a farming operation that grew pecans, a processing plant, and for a short time a sewing industry that made lady’s slacks. Millard Fuller soon filled the director’s slot. While in Koinonia, Millard Fuller helped create Partnership Housing and The Fund for Humanity. The effort built a new home for Bo and Emma Johnson, but more importantly that first house was the blueprint for a program that would build one million more homes around the world.

In 1973, the Fullers uprooted again and this time moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, taking the principles of Partnership Housing with them. Three years later, the Fuller returned to the United States and moved to Americus, Georgia, a little town just down the road from Plains, Georgia, and opened the first Habitat for Humanity headquarters.

Just nine years and several homes later, Americans opened up their newspapers and magazines to see a photo of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter wielding a hammer. He and his wife Rosalynn had become Habitat partners. An outgrowth of his human rights platform while President and his continuing outreach programs, Habitat for Humanity finally got the public relations push it needed.

Today, thanks to millions of volunteers, people are hammering out hope in over three thousand communities around the world. Habitat for Humanity homes have been built from Lawrence, Kansas to Waianae, Hawaii to Cochabamba, Bolivia. They provide shelter for Prem Bahadur Thakula in Tikapur, Nepal. There are forty-five Habitat homes in the area where Namugenyi Piona lives with her daughters in Wobulenzi, Uganda. Ademar de Souza and his wife, Valderene lived in a makeshift shack made of plastic and cardboard until they moved into their Habitat home. The stories of how over 750,000 people got decent, affordable housing stretch from Nyamakate, Zimbabwe to Waritzan, Papua New Guinea to Philadelphia, U.S.A.

The official creed of Habitat for Humanity is to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness from the world, and to make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action. On the human scale, the mission is to provide suitable housing for people and communities in need. Each of the over 1500 Habitat for Humanity affiliates in the United States and the five hundred affiliates internationally, are operated independently. They are all legal entities in their own right and have their own mandates and goals. Each board has a committee to select candidates, review applications and select the families they would like to build for.
“There’s a tremendous need,” says Ted Swisher, head of the U.S. Affiliates. “We would like housing to be where food is in the United States. Nobody would allow somebody to starve in their community or to go without basic clothing. But we would allow people to live in substandard housing in this country. Many people still live in very primitive conditions.”

The human goal is to become more humane. Creating proper shelter stops the cycle of poverty and hopelessness for families. It gives them the survival basics and an opportunity to aspire. There are also positive health and safety implications when you provide proper shelter. There are less places for mosquitoes to breed, and the overall cleaner living conditions allow less chance of malaria, cholera and other maladies. Supplying affordable new housing also creates the opportunity for families to buy proper food and clothing.

The icon of Habitat for Humanity is its logo, of course, but also the hammer and nails, Skilsaw, concrete mixer and mason’s trowel that are the uniquitous tools of home construction. The most meaningful icons are the 750,000 homes that have been constructed around the world over the last 40 years. And there are other icons, too. The photographs of smiling new homeowners have become iconic, as well as the many visuals of new homeowners and volunteers hammering away during construction. In 1984, when Jimmy Carter joined the cause as part of his commitment to social justice and human rights, pictures of the former President of the United pounding nails was a dramatic image that drew people’s attention.

The ritual of home building is older than the wheel. Ever since man clawed shelter from under a tree trunk, the ritual of inspecting the proper home site and then the trade of finding the proper materials and assembling them in the right way have been respected for centuries. (Who builds a better house than a carpenter, mason or shipwright? A gravedigger, because his lasts forever. Shakespeare: Hamlet.)

The rituals en force for Habitat for Humanity involve first selecting the families who will receive the homes. This is a painstaking and painful process. Prospective homeowners are selected based on three criteria, says Swisher. “The three criteria that we have are income, need, and their willingness to partner. Habitat families have to be willing to help build the houses, so they have to be willing to partner.”

Once accepted, future homeowners must enter a rite of passage that includes classes on home maintenance and home ownership, legal counseling, and financial counseling to help them understand the responsibilities of home ownership. Finally, the prospective homeowners must sign a letter of intent. Then they start building their own sweat equity by helping to build someone else’s home.

Roof-raising is a rite shared by volunteers. The act of building a home varies upon the location. In Atlanta, where Habitat perhaps has its strongest support, building a home takes volunteers about eight weeks or 1200 hours. In a rural or third world community, it might take much longer. Habitat also holds special events called “blitz builds” where, during a single week, they might build forty to one hundred homes in a community. These events might be based on a special need, or to celebrate a ten-year anniversary. “Whenever an affiliate decides they want to do it,” says Swisher.

The Jimmy Carter Work Project is another important celebration for Habitat. Each year, the former President and his wife Rosalyn Carter donate a week of their time and labor to build homes. Thousands of volunteers sign up for the event, which is held in a different location each year. In 2004, the Jimmy Carter Work Project engaged over 4000 volunteers—not counting the Carters, to build ninety-two homes in Anniston, Alabama, and in the communities of Valdosta and LaGrange, Georgia. In 2005, they moved their efforts to Detroit and Benton Harbor in Michigan. Other events have sponsored constructions in South Korea and South Africa. The JCWP is an important annual rite that garners attention from press all over the world, and hammers home the need for proper housing, as well as the necessity of humanitarian efforts worldwide.
In some cultures, the carpenters place a small fir tree in the house eave to symbolize its completion. In some cultures, they erect a cross. When a family is ready to move into its new home in Celebes, the priest collected the souls of family members in a bag and then returned to their owners to protect them from supernatural dangers. In Habitat for Humanity, much festivity surrounds the new owners occupying their home.

“We have a home dedication where we celebrate the completion of the house,” says Swisher. “The family gets the keys and they are handed a Bible.” There are some exceptions, where presenting the Bible would be illegal or potentially dangerous. In those situations, common sense is used.

Another rituals are the three board meetings with members from around the world that are held each year. HFHI members from around the world come together to discuss their work and what needs to be done. “We might have two meetings a year in the U.S.,” says Swisher, just recently returned from South Africa. “And the third in a foreign country.”

When it comes to sacred words, the terms of art in carpentry, masonry, engineering and the other homebuilding crafts all apply. The name Habitat for Humanity also has built a halo around it. other terms like blitz builds become their own sacred nomenclature.

There are myths surrounding Habitat for Humanity homes that remind us that perception is reality only for the uninformed. These arguments are usually used by people who don’t believe. In other words, Habitat heretics. One myth is that local property values decrease when a Habitat home goes into a neighborhood. In fact, Habitat houses have generally increased property values and the local tax base. Another false factoid is that Habitat homes are available only for people of color. In fact, Habitat homeowners are judged solely upon their economic status, and one third of all Habitat homeowners are Caucasian. Perhaps the most widespread myth is that Habitat homes are given away. According to Habitat for Humanity, homeowners actually help to build their own homes and put in real sweat equity—up to 500 hours worth.

What’s the worst place to build? Probably Africa, says Swisher. “It’s the least developed and going downhill in terms of development and per capita income,” he says. “In places where the country is very poor, if we can raise the money outside the country and send it there, that can be very productive. Labor is inexpensive, materials are inexpensive. Sometimes there are advantages to being in a poor country, provided you have the financial resources.”

On the other hand, “affordable housing” is becoming an oxymoron in developed countries like the U.S., where related housing costs like land and lumber have become more costly. “In the United States,” says Swisher, “the cost of land and the cost and times required to receive approval to build is becoming a huge obstacle. Overseas, there is total community support, which makes them more advantageous. Frankly, even people building $300,000 homes here in the U.S. are finding it tougher. Municipalities are getting tighter on their regulations, many communities make new housing pay for things you didn’t have to many years ago. Some municipalities are making it very hard on us.”

The original leaders are Millard Fuller and his wife Linda. Their sacrifice and vision have been inspirational for people everywhere. Another leader, of course, is former President Jimmy Carter, whose celebrity helped raise awareness of Habitat for Humanity and spread the word of its good works around the world. Political leaders from around the world have also participated in Habitat events, including President Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines, President Thabo Mbeki in South Africa, Tanzania President Benjamin William Mkapa, Poland Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, Australia Prime Minister John Howard, Korean President Kim Dae-jung, His Excellency Dr. Andres Pastrana Arango, president of the Republic of Colombia, and President George W. Bush. Recently, Habitat for Humanity also elected a new Chairman, Paul Leonard.
But perhaps the real leaders are the grassroots personalities who help to organize, find funding and rally support at the over 1700 affiliates in the U.S. and another 550 local affiliates around the world.

There is no question of Habitat for Humanity’s success. They build over 5000 homes each year and are one of the Top 20 homebuilders in the United States. By the time you read this in 2006, over one million households around the world will have been created through Habitat for Humanity, thanks to over 6 million volunteer hours each year.

“For so many families around the world who have terrible housing, it doesn’t take much imagination to know what it means to those families,” says Swisher. “In the United States, we still have substandard housing problems that are severe. It’s one of those problems where we are probably making negative progress. The need for affordable, available housing outstrips the availability every year. It’s still a tremendous need. I can’t think of anything better than, once the basic need of food and clothing is provided, to provide a decent shelter at a cost a family can afford.”

One thought on “The primal cause: Habitat for Humanity

  1. But the Bible handover? How does that fit into the picture?

    For the god-bothering Fullers, it makes perfect sense – the story of Jesus and his carpentry is a very old primal story.

    But the fact that the Bible sometimes has to be omitted suggests that it’s a foreign element in an otherwise homgenous brand.

    Either this is a ‘housing is a right’ program, or its a ‘let’s do good Christian works’ program. But it can only be both among God-fearing communities. And since countries like Nepal (mentioned in the story above) are 90% Hindu, the program looks like proselytising.

Comments are closed.