What's the deal with Habitat?
January 30, 2008 4:19 PM   Subscribe

I don't understand Habitat for Humanity. Perhaps you do?

I'm not confused by the international programs, or the work they're doing in, say, New Orleans... but the regular American program seems weird to me, particularly in light of what a supremely popular charity it is. Maybe if I explain what I don't get, someone can fill me in on the facts I'm missing and/or explain where my thinking is wrong? Here's hoping!
I understand that the mortgages given to Habitat recipients are interest free and therefore quite small... it seems, though, that if one can afford a small mortgage, plus property taxes, and can pay for water and to heat and electrify and maintain a whole house... such a family could also rent a perfectly nice home, no? The website says it's for people "in need of decent housing", and it seems that there's an enormous gulf between "in need of decent housing" and "capable of paying the freight on a Habitat home". Not that there's anything wrong with anyone helping ANYONE out, but it seems weird to me that it's such a super! popular! charity in that it seems to be helping folks who are doing pretty alright already. Obviously it's better when your home is also an investment... but is there something a little Marie Antoinette-ish about a charity in this country, which is full of terrible poverty, that says "Oh no! There are people who don't own real estate!?"
What am I missing?
posted by moxiedoll to Society & Culture (50 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I think part of the draw is that you get to help build a house / paint / hang drywall/ whatever, which in short bursts can be fun and educational.
posted by 0xFCAF at 4:29 PM on January 30, 2008

I think part of the draw is that you get to help build a house / paint / hang drywall/ whatever, which in short bursts can be fun and educational.

That seems like its still helping the folks who are "doing pretty alright already" and not helping the people who need housing the most.

I mean, thats great and everything, but its still not helping the people who need it the most, unless they Pay it Forward. (Which they very well might. Who knows?)

I don't get it either.

posted by mhp at 4:33 PM on January 30, 2008

Your math doesn't add up. If the rental situation is profitable for the landlord, then the cost of renting must be higher than the cost of ownership for equivalent housing. When you are renting a house, you are paying for all of the costs of ownership, including the owner's interest-bearing mortage, as well as a profit for the owner.
posted by indyz at 4:36 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

As a "reward" to people who have pulled themselves up from true poverty to a point where they can afford all the things you mentioned, but perhaps could never save up a downpayment or secure a loan?
posted by clh at 4:37 PM on January 30, 2008

It's about more than just housing, it's about helping people build a life. If you prefer to rent, or think that should be sufficient, that's fine, but the program believes that home ownership and developing some equity is kind of fundamental to building a stable home base for a family. The Habitat method allows families to own a home for not much more than it would cost them to rent. Families that own owns tend to do better at keeping their kids in school, staying healthy, and ultimately building financial health and stability. The families put sweat equity into the homes they buy; the payments they make are recycled by the organization into the next homes that are built or rehabilitated. Habitat homes improve neighborhoods by helping to spark improvements in the neighboring homes, as well. What goes around, comes around. I have worked on these houses, and purely as a side benefit, it pays off for the volunteers as well -- we get up early on a Saturday, learn building techniques, meet interesting people, and make a difference.
posted by beagle at 4:38 PM on January 30, 2008 [6 favorites]

In case you aren't aware, paying rent is losing money. Owning a home is an investment. Habitat allows for families to own homes so that they can have some of their own capital when otherwise they may ever be able to. Also, Habitat homes are often fitted with the latest green technologies and are of a really sturdy structure. So, when a family gets a home from Habitat, they are getting a better and more effecient (re: less expensive bills) home than the same amount of money would otherwise afford them. It is a tough process.
posted by greta simone at 4:40 PM on January 30, 2008

They do pay it forward. MANY of the volunteers at a Habitat project are Habitat recipients. I was taking photographs at one recently and the builders were pretty much evenly

1. professional contractor/builder volunteers & habitat staff
2. AmeriCorps volunteers, mostly young college-age kids
3. past recipients of Habitat homes
posted by luriete at 4:40 PM on January 30, 2008

construction not structure. long day
posted by greta simone at 4:41 PM on January 30, 2008

Families that own owns tend to do better at keeping their kids in school, staying healthy, and ultimately building financial health and stability.

Are you sure that you're not mixing up cause and effect there? It seems to me that people with better financial health, less family problems, etc are more likely to own homes.
posted by chrisamiller at 4:46 PM on January 30, 2008

Habitat Fact Sheet.

posted by JayRwv at 4:53 PM on January 30, 2008

indyz: You're assuming that a rental and purchased home cost the same. A 2-bedroom apartment is generally smaller and cheaper than a 2-bedroom house.

greta: paying rent can actually save you a lot of money if the market is overheated and cooling off.
posted by kamelhoecker at 5:02 PM on January 30, 2008

I've supported it because:

-It's basic. Need house, get a house. People need houses, we build houses for them.

-If you've ever watched any documentaries on them, you will see that the people who are helped are generally hard workers who got screwed by life. And the new home owners commit to assisting others in the program. It's sort of like the precursor of the micro-loans that are becoming popular now. You are giving a boost up, not an outright handout.

-Some people, like me, are trepidatious about supporting traditional charities for a variety of reasons. Like the idea that there is a whole sort of culture of charity and fund raising and "helping" the poor by "raising awareness", which amounts to paying double for a catered meal and writing it off. Then there are charities like the Red Cross who buy new phone systems with the money donated for flood victims. Organizations that become about feeding the bureaucracy.
posted by gjc at 5:04 PM on January 30, 2008

The suggestion to rent seems kinda short-sighted to me. It's a fine for someone with a steady income, or who has retirement savings to make the payment. And as kamelhoecker notes it sometimes make more financial sense.

But if I were like 80, and had been living check to check (without savings) I'd be pretty scared of having coming up with that check every month to avoid being homeless.
posted by oblio_one at 5:05 PM on January 30, 2008

Frequently, rental properties that the participants could afford are substandard and/or unsafe. These houses are built, usually from the ground up. They're nice, decently made properties that also usually rehabilitate a piece of property that was abandoned & in decay. So, it's win-win. A decent family moves into a nice house on a property that is restored to tax-paying status. The house can built to accommodate specific needs.

Interest is, for the first years, a huge part of a mortgage. Any mortgage. This way, every penny of what would be going to pay interest goes to principal.

People who do the building/contribute the money also feel good, as though they're making a difference.

There is no downside. There are very few charities about which you can say that.
posted by clarkstonian at 5:32 PM on January 30, 2008

Ownership tends to improve neighborhoods. Areas that tend largely to rentals are not as well cared for, and after a while as property values decrease (as a result of that poor care/investment in the neighborhood) and you end up with slumlord situations and all the baggage that goes with. Throwing a few homeowners into the mix tends to shift the dynamics pretty dramatically.

That attitude tends to snowball, as well. The children of the recipients, who may have never known anyone who owned a home, grow up with a completely different perspective than they might have otherwise. And in America, specifically, where home ownership is part of the Dream that they may not have seen fulfilled before, that can be a really powerful education in personal and financial investment in community.

Renting and owning are not interchangeable experiences. I rented houses for 10 years before buying my own, and my landlords didn't give any more of a shit about their property than they absolutely had to. That's the only way to stay ahead of the game, financially. It's nothing like owning.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:37 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Habitat also has a lot of education programs that prospective home owners need to complete before they get on the list to get a house. Things like how to budget and run their house, common repairs; Basically, how to be a good home owner. Also, "Paying it Forward" is part of the deal. Part of their mortgage agreement involves providing "sweat equity" by helping to build other Habitat houses. I believe they have to complete so many hours on someone elses house before their own is started.
posted by jrishel at 5:44 PM on January 30, 2008

indyz: "Your math doesn't add up. If the rental situation is profitable for the landlord, then the cost of renting must be higher than the cost of ownership for equivalent housing. When you are renting a house, you are paying for all of the costs of ownership, including the owner's interest-bearing mortage, as well as a profit for the owner."

In theory that's correct, but it's a tremendous oversimplification. Real life is more complicated than ECON 101, and in a given area it may or may not be true that it's cheaper to own than rent. Reasons that might make rent cheaper include:

Investors seeking profit through value appreciation (a/k/a "overheated market")
Size/construction/other differences between properties available for rent vs. those for sale.
Investors with paid-off properties not actively seeking profit.
Roommate/House-share/Mother-in-law suite situations (this is similar to situation 2)

etc. etc. etc.

You don't need to limit yourself to tangible economic arguments, though -- there are other public policy arguments I've heard for promoting home ownership including fostering a sense of community, increased pride and care for one's domicile and quality-of-life improvement via residential stability. In other words, people who know they're going to be in the same place for a while have more at stake in a given area and get more involved in making things better. And people who own a domicile rather than rent it should take better care of it.
posted by Opposite George at 5:45 PM on January 30, 2008

"it seems, though, that if one can afford a small mortgage, plus property taxes, and can pay for water and to heat and electrify and maintain a whole house... such a family could also rent a perfectly nice home, no? The website says it's for people 'in need of decent housing', and it seems that there's an enormous gulf between 'in need of decent housing' and 'capable of paying the freight on a Habitat home'."

I knew someone who was a habitat recipient. They were working poor but also had a daughter in a wheelchair. Renting when you have a special need like that is at least a couple orders of magnitude more difficult, owning a home is a lot lower stress wise.
posted by Mitheral at 6:17 PM on January 30, 2008

t seems, though, that if one can afford a small mortgage, plus property taxes, and can pay for water and to heat and electrify and maintain a whole house... such a family could also rent a perfectly nice home, no?

There are so many hidden costs.

Habitat mortgages start with no, or very little, money down. People who can't afford to buy a house often find that this simple down payment is the deal-breaker.

Habitat mortgages don't require earnest money, either. Another hurdle passed.

Property taxes are factored into the Habitat monthly mortgage payment. Some mortgages don't do this, hitting the new owner up for a huge payment that will wreck those living week-to-week. Another hurdle passed.

Mortgages bring huge tax benefits. Another hurdle passed for the low income person.

Mortgages mean you're not tossed out on your ear if you miss a payment -- the loan can be restructured or refinanced. Another hurdle passed.

Habitat mortgages have the smallest interest rates, reducing the monthly payment. Another hurdle.

It all ads up.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:18 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Decent housing is actually pretty difficult to find in many places. Apartments are shitty and decrepit and small, neighborhoods are dangerous and unwelcoming. The economies that seem like they would apply often don't, so that a shitty small apartment in a dangerous, drug-infested neighborhood frequently costs just a bit less than one in better condition and a better location, but their may be all kinds of reasons (credit, available cash, discrimination, intimidation) why someone who can afford the shitty place can't really make the jump to the decent place. In Baltimore I hear all the time from clients who rent single rooms for $400/month in the worst possible neighborhoods. I live in a good neighborhood and pay less than 40% more than that for my one bedroom, but those same folks wouldn't ever have a chance (even if they had the ready cash) of renting here. So, I think your lack of understanding is predicated on a lack of understanding of how housing markets actually work for the participants. Even if the house is more expensive than a simple rental, it's likely so much better than other options that the difference in cost far exceeds what a similar increased expenditure would buy on the market for the same family.
posted by OmieWise at 6:24 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

If the rental situation is profitable for the landlord, then the cost of renting must be higher than the cost of ownership for equivalent housing. When you are renting a house, you are paying for all of the costs of ownership, including the owner's interest-bearing mortage, as well as a profit for the owner.

That's true in a dry, logical sense, but not always true in practice. In many cases the cost of ownership by a landlord is based upon lower values many years ago. For example, it's currently cheaper to rent a house than buy one in the UK (like for like), simply because many landlords purchased when the prices were about 50% of what they are now (about 5 - 8 years ago). As such, their mortgage is about half of the mortgage on an equivalent property today, and they know that if they price a reasonable distance below mortgage levels they can attract people who are hesitant to rent but also short of cash.
posted by wackybrit at 6:47 PM on January 30, 2008

I was the real estate agent for a family selling their Habitat home after the no-sell time period for Habitat (I believe it was five years). The husband was transferred to Florida in his work, and because of their equity in their modest home they had the ability to send him down to start work immediately and rent while looking for a new home. The wife was able to stay in their existing home with their daughter so she could finish out the year in her school. If they were just renting, I can't imagine they'd have this luxury, and would be forced to just get to Florida and rent whatever they could find.
posted by shinynewnick at 6:56 PM on January 30, 2008

I think I get where moxiedoll was coming from in the original post, and I think maybe some of the replies are missing the point a bit. I don't think she's questioning whether or not Habitat for Humanity is a good program. Surely the people who receive the homes have need. I hate to speak for her but I think she's suggesting that maybe there are people at a more fundamental level of poverty -- ie, people who couldn't afford even a Habitat home -- that could use the money/time of Habitat volunteers much more.
posted by loiseau at 7:33 PM on January 30, 2008

is there something a little Marie Antoinette-ish about a charity in this country, which is full of terrible poverty, that says "Oh no! There are people who don't own real estate!?"

Generally speaking, to me, no. This seems like the equivalent of asking "why support animal welfare when there are so many starving children in the US?" which then becomes "Why feed starving children in the US when there are EVEN MORE starving children in ________________" I think there are a few reasons that Habitat is popular despite the fact that I think you're correct, they do not serve the hardest to serve.

1. Habitat supports all levels of people in their process. People get homes, people build homes, companies donate building materials. AmeriCorps people get volunteer experience, communities get homeowners. One of the reasons Habitat has that warm fuzzy feeling is that it touches people in many different ways and allows many people to be part of the process. This is appealing.

2. Habitat has tangible benefits. In a day and age where people are trying to figure out what the ROI is for damned near everything, Habitat can point to a house and say "we built this!" and everyone can see it and go "aahhhhhh" and you can feel your money is well spent.

3. Habitat appeals to religious and non-religious people. In 2008 this is a minor miracle in and of itself. It's JUST about housing. Simple, direct, non-contentious.

4. Habitat shows long-term results. I don't mean to be cynical about this especially, but working with super at-risk populations like homeless folks, drug addicted people, or people caught in abuse cycles is totally heartbreaking because of the recidivism rates and the failure rates and the sad sad lives people are trying to grapple with. It can be harder to give money to programs dealing with the hardest to serve -- I see this in libraries dealing with digital divide issues which are really red-lining and education issues and poverty issues -- because there's just going to be a lot of attempts that fail. Helping people who are partway there, and who have "sweat equity" as Habitat likes to say helps to keep failure rates down and makes the organization look successful and success breeds success.

I like Habitat a lot personally because Jimmy Carter was my president back when there were solar panels on the White House and I have always shared a part of his dream about lifting people out of poverty. I think your observations are correct that Habitat is dealing with people who have some means and resources already, but they're also, in many cases the populations where just a little boost is likely to change their lives for the better, and maybe change them for good. Habitat needs to not just help people but stay in business and their model for doing that is working wiht this population group. As you have noted it also allows them to go into places like New Orleans and do really good works there.

As a country, the US is a place that values home ownership and you can see this from our banking regulations to our tax law. Helping people become part of that which is socially valued in some ways helps them become more legitimate or whatever you want to call it. There are many good arguments for real estate ownership being a social good that people have made above and yet there are many people for whom this is a total pipe dream without some help. Habitat gives people that help.
posted by jessamyn at 7:56 PM on January 30, 2008 [6 favorites]

I'm not overly familiar with the process, but I think the basic perspective is to help people who will work hard to help themselves. It isn't an easy process to be approved, you have to put in the time and energy in building the home, so it isn't meant to be a direct handout.

Habitat for Humanity isn't set up financially to just give away homes. They wouldn't be able to help the number of people they can in the current system. This way people a couple of rungs up the ladder from poverty can have a helping hand in establishing their financial independence. If you gave the same home to a person completely unable to make monthly payments, it would quickly have to be repossessed.
posted by shinynewnick at 8:00 PM on January 30, 2008

That seems like its still helping the folks who are "doing pretty alright already" and not helping the people who need housing the most.

The people who need housing the most generally don't even rent. They generally require subsidies like Section 8 or placements in public housing or appropriate long-term supportive housing that meets their drug recovery/mental health/physical frailty issues.
posted by The Straightener at 8:06 PM on January 30, 2008

Best answer: I sent the text of the OP to my father, who has been a member of Habitat for just about six or seven years now, and this is what he wrote back....

I tend to think of it in terms of the woman that will be changing my diapers in the nursing home. She probably wasn't blessed with the greatest IQ, and has had any number of disadvantages in her life. But she is a responsible, hard working person, doing a shitty (literally) but necessary job in order to support herself and her family. Her wages suck and enable her to only afford some rat-infested shit hole of an apartment. What if we, her neighbors and friends, got together and gave her a "hand up" not a "hand out". We will help her (she has to put in 500 hours of sweat equity) build a house that can become a "home" for her family. We won't ask for any government help -- just neighbors helping neighbors. Hopefully it will make a better life for her and her family, improve the community we live in (clusters of Habitat houses tend to revive inner city neighborhoods), and improve ourselves in the process.

Are there other people in greater need of housing? Of course. But that isn't Habitat's purpose. It is to assist people willing to help themselves provide "decent & affordable" housing for them and their families. In Rochester, Habitat families pay about $450/month for their places. I believe that anything even close to comparable housing on the rental market is twice that.

If the person who wrote this is going to condemn Habitat for helping families have homes in the face of all the "terrible poverty", why do we have Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, American Cancer Society, etc. Individual charities can't solve all the world's problems -- they can only nip at the edges.

Is Habitat always successful? Of course not -- I've seen a fair number of families who have failed. But I've also met an awful lot who are really pretty inspiring to all of us. The writer kind of assumes that if they can afford a Habitat house they must be doing alright. The reality is that in order to qualify to even apply for a Habitat house, you literally have to be on the fringe of economic viability. A lot of these families struggle just to maintain their Habitat homes.

I'd also like to add that when my mom was really sick and in the hospital for a few months, the Habitat people really helped my dad out, too - brought dinner to him, made sure he was okay, all that.
posted by Lucinda at 8:08 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I work for Habitat. There, I said it. I've hinted at it for a long time, but I do. I want to both congratulate you for your questions and address some issues I feel strongly about. I cannot tell you how all affiliates work, I can simply tell you how ours does, and how International says we're supposed to. (They don't tell us much, but there are some things that are required.)

We don't build homes, we build houses. It's just that simple. It's up to the families to make their house a home.

Every family member over the age of 18 must perform X hours of service on their (And other) homes during the time their house is under construction. For us its 250, for some it's 500. We believe that working on your house should be the equivalent of a part time job.

Our mortgages are interest free, generally 15-20 year terms. We serve people who make 35-65 percent OF MEDIAN income for our county. So, take average, find 35% of it, and that's the lowest income we serve. HUD gives us these figures, it's based on county and number of people in your family. Until last year we served as low as 25%, but...

We believe that spending greater than 1/3 of your monthly income is substandard. HUD says the same thing. There is not a single county or parish in the US where a full-time minimum-wage worker can afford adequate housing. With that said, those partners who were at the 25% level would be spending more than 1/3 of their monthly income on our mortgage and escrow, and would therefore be substandard.

On average, right now, our 3 bedroom home costs us approximately $65,000 to build including lot, materials, and labor. We generally sell those homes to partner families for $50,000 on an interest free mortgage, average payment of $206.67/month plus ~$75-100 for escrow. We add a silent second note equal to the value of the first note as a protection against scams and predatory lenders. The second note is forgiven automatically at 10%/year. Our houses are generally appraised in the $130,000 range, which (do the math) gives someone an instant $80,000 in equity. The silent second note is there to keep nasty lenders from giving them a second mortgage and taking their house. Unfortunately this is a development that we've only been able to address in the last 5-7 years, and hundreds of habitat families nationwide have lost their homes to predatory lenders. Moving on...

Our mission statement says something about eliminating poverty housing from the face of the earth. Obviously, that's not going to happen. Every day, world wide, there are more homeless families than there were the day before. This brings me to the starfish story---about the guy throwing in starfish that washed up on shore. There were millions of them. A guy came along and said "dude, what are you doing? It's not making a difference?" The fellow throwing the starfish back into the ocean picked one up and threw it in. He said "You see this one? It just made a difference to him." That's the general theme with any charity.

Moving on...if you want a seriously SERIOUSLY good bit of insight into poverty, check out the Ruby Payne series entitled "A Framework for Understanding Poverty." I grew up in poverty, bad poverty, and as I read Ruby's books I'm astounded about how much she knows about me.

Building houses doesn't fix poverty. Certainly not. It helps familes take ownership of their lives and move to control something previously out of their control. We've done outcome studies showing that the health (asthma from air pollution in rental properties is INSANE) and general well being of our families has skyrocketed since they've moved into their homes.

For every non-restricted bit of funding we get, 10% goes to our sister affiliate in Guatemala, where a full-featured house costs about $2500. So, for every house we build here, we build two or three there. That's pretty awesome. Guatemala is celebrating it's 25,000th house during holy week this March.

We do have issues and problems. We do have to forclose sometimes. We do have to be mean. We do expect our families to pay their bills on time. No family makes it through selection without a thorough credit exam and rehabilitation. Every family goes through orientations and trainings about budgeting and other nifty things. (Maintainence, CPR/First Aid, reading/writing, etc. Whatever suits their interest and their needs.)

We serve thousands of volunteers every year, and people come for every reason from wanting to learn how to build their own home, to simply wanting to sweat for a good reason, to wanting to make peace with their God. Some of us go because, well, it's a good time.

Our houses are currently in the top 10% of all homes built in our state in terms of efficiency and long-term affordability. We will soon start a subdivision that will be the FIRST LEED certified subdivision in our county, and one of only 3 in the entire state.

I've written enough and I could write for days. The OP or anyone else is welcome to contact me directly to ask more questions, or yell at me, or whatever. I'll blather on about Habitat and Poverty and all that good stuff for hours and hours---I've been working in this field since I was 17 and I never intend to leave it.

One more thing: What we are NOT: we are not an emergency housing solution. We do NOT give houses away. We do NOT charge interest on mortgages, and we are NOT affiliated with any governmental agency. It has only been in the last 4 years that we have actually been allowed to accept any governmental money what so ever, now it's mostly in the form of FHLB/first time homebuyers benefits.
posted by TomMelee at 8:42 PM on January 30, 2008 [79 favorites]

jessamyn and Lucinda's answers put it better than I could, but in short, there is a class of poverty that often gets overlooked because they're doing just well enough to keep their heads (or at least their nostrils) above water. They don't want welfare, probably wouldn't qualify for it anyway, but subsist just below the level of income that would allow them to really grow and prosper.

I've been friends with many such people, people who would have benefited immensely from owning a home outright but lacked the credit or the liquid assets to pull it off, despite working themselves to death just to break even at the end of the month. Comparing helping these people to saying "let them eat cake" is (however unintentionally) frankly pretty damn hateful and dismissive of their plight.

When my grandfather died, a fairly racist man (not a Klansman or anything, but had those old shiftless/lazy ideas about black people in his head), there was precisely one African American at his funeral, an elderly woman who walked up to me at the receiving line, beaming and weeping openly, telling me what a saint my grandfather had been. I was, as you might imagine, confused.

My mom explained it to me later: This woman was a single mother with two or three kids, working her ass off to try to provide for them, and yet also be around to actually be a presence in their lives. She had an apartment, but was too poor to own a car, etc. My grandparents saw her situation, saw how hard she was trying and yet getting nowhere, so they started to help out -- I can only imagine how hard she must have been working to break through those racist ideas my grandparents had.

Anyway, they bought her groceries occasionally, maybe some Christmas presents for the kids, and then goddamn whammo, my racist-ass grandfather bought her a car.

Changed her life forever. Now she's a prosperous, middle class woman with children who have grown and gone on to professional careers. She credits my grandfather's help as being crucial to this change in her life. Habitat does precisely this kind of thing.

On preview, TomMelee has your best answer.
posted by middleclasstool at 8:49 PM on January 30, 2008 [12 favorites]

Oh---snap. Let me give you a couple background stories to some of our current families:

We've got a 27 year old young lady who was injured in an accident when she was 18 and became paralyzed from the waist down. She was living with her mother in a 1979 trailer that was not accomodating of her wheelchair. (FYI, prior to 1980 there were no restrictions on trailers, most are sheet metal and furring strips.) Every home we build uses universal design, hers is specifically geared for someone in a chair. Without hooking up with Habitat, she would never have found a place to live other than a group home. For her, on top of an affordable mortgage--she gets independence.

We've got a large family that's got his/hers/ours. Prior to becoming a partner family, she weighed about 250/300 lbs and they were, literally, living in an old restaurant, sleeping on cushions, etc. She's now down to about 115, and things are really looking up for them.

We've got a lady and her daughter, the lady almost walked away about 6 months before her house was completed because she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. We begged her to stay, she wanted to walk because she said she'd be dead before she could pay it off. We told her we didn't care, it was her house and we were building it with her. She's also had multiple knee surgeries and a back surgery, the MRI's for the back surgery found the cancer. Amazingly, now she's cancer free, much to the surprise of the doctors.

We're not giving houses to crackheads and lunatics--we're giving people a hand up, not a hand out. I honestly feel bad for people who hate their jobs and don't really know what they do at the end of the day. I don't make these peoples stories, I help provide them the tools to make them themselves. Then I get to sit back and taste a bit of their elation when it all comes true. Can you imagine? I can't.
posted by TomMelee at 8:50 PM on January 30, 2008 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: These responses are amazing and the answers are better than in my wildest dreams. I hope it continues! Just to clarify a couple of things -
Lucinda - Please thank your dad for me, and please clarify for him that I wouldn't and didn't and don't "condemn" the project one bit. Quite the opposite. I just didn't understand it and I've gained a lot of insight from this thread. Also....

middleclasstool - I'm not sure that this comment was called for - I've been friends with many such people, people who would have benefited immensely from owning a home outright but lacked the credit or the liquid assets to pull it off, despite working themselves to death just to break even at the end of the month. Comparing helping these people to saying "let them eat cake" is (however unintentionally) frankly pretty damn hateful and dismissive of their plight. All I can say is that I don't hate people who can't afford houses, because I myself cannot afford a house. I'm sure that the stats have changed, but according to 2000 figures in the NY Times, over 30% of American households don't own a house, so while I appreciate that having a house with equity in it is totally awesome and really useful, it doesn't seem sad to me to not have one.

I guess what I had trouble figuring out was the contrast between this universally loved and frequently cited program that no one ever has a bad word to say about (where people whose basic needs are more than met receive an enormous financial windfall)... and the lack of support and controversial nature of providing charity, benefits, entitlements, whatever, to people who are much worse off. (Not saying that the former shouldn't be done until the latter is all taken care of in some imaginary future... it's just the contrast of those two ideas that is puzzling to me).

What I'm hearing, I guess is that Habitat is popular because it's a great program that provides wonderful help to people that can be supported wholeheartedly by everybody, including people who can't stand the idea of someone receiving something without investing labor and capital. (This is my own new insight - I'm not talking about anybody on this thread). So there's nobody who wouldn't like it.

(Including me! I always liked it! Tell Lucinda's dad!)
posted by moxiedoll at 9:38 PM on January 30, 2008

Wow..thanks for all the info TomMelee. I have worked in social work all my life, and would add a few things. One, in my community, which is high cost but not insane, a rental apartment runs at least $700. A mom with one child on welfare makes $570 or so; minimum wage isn't a whole lot better (esp because then that mom is paying hundreds a month for child care). The cost of owning a habitat house is so much less, without even adding the intangibles, like the sense of permanence and increased self esteem associated with knowing you aren't going to be asked to leave at any time. Apartments are always much smaller, and Habitat often works with families with more children than one or two. If families I work with do rent a house, it's almost always crappy, with things like sinks that don't work for days, or horrendously high utility costs.

There's great stuff out there about the high cost of poverty; if you are poor, you have to pay high interest rates if you can get credit at all. You drive a shitty gas-guzzling car that breaks down all the time. You have to shop for groceries at the convenience store on your block, not at Costco, cause you can't get to the outlying areas. Your kids have to change schools every time you're evicted.

I think one reason we all love Habitat so much is it's one of the few social programs that really tries to get at the root of these issues, not just bandaid 'em. To me it's like really intensive long term drug treatment, or some of the great wrap around self sufficiency training programs for young single moms-it doesn't just give someone a food box or a voucher for their electricity that month, or buy school supplies for kids. It is an attempt, often successful, to make things different for this family forever, and for these children.

Dr. Donna Beagle does a lot of great writing and speaking on generational poverty, and one thing she talks about that really came home to me was of growing up in a family where no one ever, for generations, had owned land. Where she knew no one who was ever able to pay their power bill and their rent in the same month. So, lots of us mefites might not be able to afford our own home, but their is a huge difference for most of us-most of us have parents who can or did, our friends can or will, we have every expectation that someday we can do this (if we choose to). That is so different than the families I work with, who have no anticipation that things will ever be different.
posted by purenitrous at 10:27 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lots of accurate and wonderful things have been said here, both in praise of HFH and to help you (moxiedoll) understand it. I wanted to take a moment to throw my two cents in the ring on another benefit of this program versus renting: stability.

A fixed-rate mortgage can be budgeted for, and provided you pay the bills you get to keep your home. The people you live with are people you want living with you (mostly.) Your property is under your control.

A rental can get more expensive every time you sign a new lease, assuming the landlord doesn't make you do month-to-month. The owner(s) can decide to go condo, or sell the building to someone who won't maintain it properly. Your new neighbor might be loud, or a criminal, or dangerous, or all three. Your teenage kid might unwittingly violate a rule and get you evicted, and one month's late payment may get you evicted.

I'm a middle-class white male who, even when gainfully employed and essentially a model tenant, went through major life disruptions once a year on average trying to live in rental units in Chicago. From bathrooms that leaked sewage out of the ceiling to buildings going condo three months after signing the lease so get the hell out to 40% rent jumps that we'd have to litigate to stop...between the moving (and related expenses and time off work), the stress, and the endless cycle of having to drop new security deposits before getting the old one back...well, I can't imagine someone in a less advantageous position trying to get a leg up when you can't even be sure of where you're living next month.
posted by davejay at 10:29 PM on January 30, 2008

I think I may have a different understanding of the OPs question than most of you, as someone from a very expensive region where owning a home is a luxury the majority can't afford. Wouldn't it make sense for Habitat to renovate and rent inexpensively to families in exchange for X hours of labor for upkeep and/or renovation of additional properties? A program like that might sustain itself better than a home ownership model, which seems pretty extravagant regardless of the labor invested.
posted by cali at 12:08 AM on January 31, 2008

Cali, go back and read the comments about the benefits of ownership versus renting, both for the owners and their neighborhoods. Habitat works in San Francisco same as it does elsewhere, see projects list here. Get involved!
posted by beagle at 5:33 AM on January 31, 2008

I guess what I had trouble figuring out was the contrast between this universally loved and frequently cited program that no one ever has a bad word to say about (where people whose basic needs are more than met receive an enormous financial windfall)...

Your framing of this is really a little strange. "people whose basic needs are more than met receive an enormous financial windfall"

- these people are making 35-65% of the median US income. The median income in the US is $48,200. This means these families generally are taking home 31,300 maximum and possibly as little as $16,870. I would assume that poorer counties have a much lower median income. Does 20K seem like it meets basic needs? Does it "more than meet" them? Keep in mind that's household income, not personal income.
- these people put 500 hours of work into the project, a part time job for half a year, say
- these people often do not have a support network of friends/family who have mortgages and good financial modeling and are in serious uncharted territory. What may seem like a financial windfall because of equity is not redeemable for five years and requires an awful lot of towing the line before then. A good argument is that if you pay your mortgage for five years and then sell your house and walk away with that equity (which you are accumulating, not losing as you would if you were renting) that's making what 15K a year. How does that compare to being on welfare? How does that compare to being in jail? People in marginal situations cost society money in all sorts of ways and the equity in Habitat houses comes a lot from donations of time and labor, aggregates, not hand outs and a "good luck!"

You are welcome to not agree with the program for whatever reason you want, but I still feel that the way you see what they do involves a misunderstanding of who they serve and the benefits of that to the service population and society at large.
posted by jessamyn at 8:09 AM on January 31, 2008

3. Habitat appeals to religious and non-religious people. In 2008 this is a minor miracle in and of itself. It's JUST about housing. Simple, direct, non-contentious.

This is a bit murky. Habitat in my community is very religious. Their mission statement is all about working with God and putting "faith into action." All of their builds are put on by different Christian congregations. This does not appeal to me.
posted by mattbucher at 8:18 AM on January 31, 2008

Response by poster: Jessamyn - thank you for your answers, they've been really helpful. I don't not agree with the program. I think the program is fantastic. I'm not unaware of how much it sucks for people who at 65% of the median, or at the poverty line, or below the poverty line. My confusion was mainly about the support that habitat gets from all corners, as opposed to the lack of support for programs that benefit those who are worse off. Does that make sense? Like, I would have thought that if X% of Americans were in favor of increased funding for section 8 vouchers, less draconian AFDC deadlines, and health insurance for all children who live at or below the poverty line.... then only a subset of that X% of people would be into Habitat, which helps people who are better off than the first group. The opposite appears to be true, and this was counterintuitive to me. I think the difference has something to do with the concept of "the deserving poor", and that's what flips the numbers around. Pointing out that there are people worse off than the group served by Habitat doesn't mean that I don't think that the people served by Habitat don't need or deserve or benefit from assistance. I think the program is amazing, and I really appreciate the time people have taken to respond with such detail.
posted by moxiedoll at 8:36 AM on January 31, 2008

i cant say much about local habitats, but i did work international (habitat for humanity - global village). In ethiopia at least the people we were helping were basically just humoring us by letting us work. Building houses their style with their materials was completely alien. Not only that, but they were serious workers, any American construction person couldn't torture their body as long as these people did.

It was almost like going to a theme park. You pay for admittance, but instead of a roller coaster you get to bust your butt in the dirt and join the lottery to see who will be one of the many winners who get sick from crazy malaria, typhoid, etc.

I would do it again :-)
posted by Black_Umbrella at 9:05 AM on January 31, 2008

mattbucher: Religious bent really depends on the diversity of chapters in the area. For instance, college chapters, like the one I participated in, are usually completely non-religious. (We would have spring break jaunts to Florida HFH chapters and they fell into a spectrum of religious participation. Our group would be respectful but not participate in before-build prayer and such. One year, our non-religious group was housed in a church, and we managed to co-exist).

Perhaps you'll be able to find a non-religious chapter a bit of a drive away. Or, perhaps, you could show up late to a work day run by a religious chapter -- I've never seen any proselytizing/dialog/singing/whatever once work has begun (too loud for that, someone's always hammering something).
posted by cowbellemoo at 10:30 AM on January 31, 2008

To clarify: many affiliates DO rehab. They DEFINITELY do. Recently, we have had a great increase in the number of county and city governments who are giving condemned and abandoned properties to habitat for just that purpose. I want to make it very clear that rehab is not often any cheaper than fresh construction---led based paint existed until the 80's, termites, dust mites, etc are pervasive.

Believe me, this has all been analyzed. Would you like to see the 10 worksheet spreadsheet breaking down the cost benefit analysis of "going green"?

Also, jessamyn is correct about the median income---but that's the national average. It's often MUCH MUCH less than that. They actually rerelease the numbers for each county/parish every year. A single person in my county at the 35% mark actually makes less than $16,000.

Please ask as many questions as you want---I'll answer 'em all day.
posted by TomMelee at 10:41 AM on January 31, 2008

Response by poster: Ok, Tom! Another question then... if I, a person with no skills whatsoever, showed up to volunteer in building a habitat house.... would I actually be able to contribute anything? Flyers claim that the clueless can also be useful, but I don't see how well-meaning dolts like me wouldn't just get in the way.
posted by moxiedoll at 11:08 AM on January 31, 2008

If you have no skill at all, call first. They'll schedule you in. You can show up anyway to most build sites, assuming you know the days and times they build. (example, we build tuesdays, thursdays, and saturdays except when there are workgroups scheduled who work 5-7 days in a row.)

But, yes--you can help. It's important that you understand that there are "less glamorous" parts of building a house. Not everyone can help put up a wall, because unless you're at one of the mega-affiliates, we don't raise walls every day. There are wires to be run, plumbing to be done, primer to be painted, drywall to hang, floors to lay, etc. You might not raise a wall, you might carry buckets of gravel for a while, you might spread grass seed. You might pull wires through their traces, you might be a "hold this, grab this" girl for the plumbing or heating folks.

Very little of the work done in a modern house is really very "skilled." If you can measure and learn to hold a speed square, you can do most everything with just a little practice. The awesome thing is that if you care to---you LEARN, and you usually learn fast. Then it's extra great, because the next time your whatever breaks or needs repaired and the service guy says "That'll be $500", you can say "dude...it'll take 20 minutes and a $15 part." Or not.

With habitat you can become as involved or as separated as you like. Many people pick a specialty and come out once a year one once per house to do their specialty. That's an option too. Whatever you do, make sure you're there at the right times. Safety briefings and daily goals are important conversations to have. Also, each affiliate has a list of "must's" for volunteers--make sure you have that. A lot of them are obvious, but some less so (no open-toed shoes, bring water, bring clothes you can get dirty, wear layers when it's cold, etc.)

Any more?
posted by TomMelee at 11:45 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the link, beagle. I neglected to say that I'm an active supporter of Habitat, I just would like to see more families helped. Every so often I feel a pang about helping fewer people by giving each of them something valuable, as opposed to giving less to each but helping a larger number.
posted by cali at 7:18 PM on January 31, 2008

moxiedoll, I'd like to apologize for my use of the term "hateful." It was in no way meant to paint you as a hateful person, strange though that may sound -- simply put, I have had a lifelong exposure to a kind of poverty that usually gets ignored because it's Not Poor Enough, and there's a kind of callous, dismissive attitude toward such people (see also: the bootstrap theory of crawling out of poverty). Seeing the question sort of rubbed me the wrong way, like "why are we wasting our time on these people, when they should just take care of their own problems," and so I responded more aggressively than I should have.

Anyway, I do apologize, and I'm glad to see from your responses here that you were earnestly seeking answers and not just looking for agreement that Habitat is a waste of time.
posted by middleclasstool at 7:39 PM on January 31, 2008

Black_Umbrella, I had exactly the same experience as you described, except in Ghana. Thanks for clarifying that I wasn't just being a cynical bastard.
posted by boots at 1:07 AM on February 1, 2008

I work for a home builder. We supported Habitat two years ago as part of their Builder Blitz. During a Blitz build, teams of professional builders work together to build Habitat homes. The families put their "sweat equity" in on another project so that the blitz can be completed quickly. We built 5 homes in 5 cities in 5 days, including this one in Latonia Lakes, KY.

This was my second Habitat project. I'm not a religious person, so I had my qualms about that aspect. In both builds, though, I saw how the families we were building for/with were gaining a real foothold outside poverty. It's very rewarding to be a part of that.
posted by tizzie at 6:32 PM on February 1, 2008

I've worked on several Habitat builds. One home we built was for a family of eight. They had emigrated from Africa. He worked as an aircraft maintenance technician, she as a nurse's aid, and they had six kids. The most they could afford was a 2-bedroom apartment. The home we built for them was a four-bedroom, 1500-square-foot ranch. Small by American standards really, but they really needed all the room they could get.

Part of the idea behind HFH is to end the cycle of poverty by giving someone ownership (literally) in their living conditions. It makes a big difference when you actually own the place.
posted by Doohickie at 10:14 PM on February 3, 2008

I can't add much to this except that we once stopped by the old Habitat headquarters in Americus while on the way to Florida, and expected little more than some brochures and maybe a photo exhibit. Millard Fuller himself appeared, and ended up giving us a personal tour of their local projects. There was this one shrunken little black dowager who had moved into her Habitat house from a drafty shack. (I had a feeling she was used to being an example -- Fuller practically walked us into her house unannounced.) It was educational but also a bit weird.

I know that there was a bias against rehab once, which was explained to me as cost-related or even liability-related, but I always suspected it had a lot to do with the strategy of partnering with local commercial builders and building materials suppliers. That said, when I lived in Jersey, the local Habitat was renovating a six-story building.

Rental does not seem to be the Habitat point. I don't think that's a criticism as much as it is a focus. But there are definitely community foundations in almost any largish city that do rental projects, either supporting renters directly or taking over buildings.

There is always a perception of money being thrown away. As jessamyn said, recidivism with crime and drugs can be heartbreaking. Most of the programs that I've been affiliated with or aware of have a behavior management component. The participants cannot have serious criminal records, or must eschew from drugs and alcohol, or other restrictions. I volunteered at a shelter/soup kitchen that only permitted people who were ready to participate in their life-training program including job-seeking. It's very obvious that many people had become accustomed to the Reaganesque nightmare of unqualified handouts, or actually preferred living on the streets (often due to mental illness). Those people weren't allowed back.

When you extrapolate this to a broader community, there is absolutely a value in home ownership. Right now I live in a neighborhood that is majority owner-occupied, if you count buildings, or majority rental, if you count bodies. That creates an interesting tension. The city is actively preferencing density reduction, so that houses that were split into two or more apartments are restored to one-family homes again. (The need for density has not been there since almost all the jobs have moved to industrial parks.) There has also been a program to eliminate "blight", that is, buildings the city deemed unsalvageable. There was a political fight about this and they toned back their aggressive stance. But they have used eminent domain on an irregular basis to deed property to Habitat for teardowns that are replaced with a Habitat home. This isn't necessarily the best choice in historic preservation terms but in most cases it has been pretty successful at eliminating problem properties that landlords had basically run into the ground. So there are what you can call "meta" or societal rationales as well for the strategy, which affects people beyond the specific family being served.

Habitat has chosen its mission, and they have been very successful where many other charities have not (or have remained local).
posted by dhartung at 10:21 PM on February 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hey whoa I got frontpaged. Wicked. Now I'm extra glad you asked this question.
posted by TomMelee at 1:40 PM on February 4, 2008

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