• Looking to expand
  • Investing in ‘sweat equity’
  • President promotes homeownership efforts

Habitat for Humanity International celebrated its landmark 25th anniversary in 2001 not by recounting its past successes but by pledging to build even more homes. The nonprofit group is increasing its production fivefold. In the past 24 years, Habitat volunteers have laid the foundation, nailed and painted 100,000 houses for families around the world. A new $500 million campaign calls for the group to build its second 100,000 homes by the end of 2005.

The move is a sign of how Habitat, which began as one man’s ministry, has grown over the years.

The new campaign, “More Than Houses: Rebuilding Our Communities,” will introduce Habitat to new countries as well as develop additional affiliates, or local chapters, in existing countries and increase the capacity of current affiliates. More than a half million homeowner families will benefit from this effort, said Jack Kemp, campaign chairman and former secretary of HUD.

Looking to expand

Last year, Habitat was the 14th largest homebuilder in the United States, said Nick Retsinas, a member on the board of directors. Currently, the organization is dealing with how it can continue to keep its original intent as it grows and expands its influence. For example, he said, Habitat has focused on its mission to create housing, but people overlook that it also values sustaining homeownership.

The organization is considering building a Habitat for Humanity International University. “The university would be an investment in human capital. It’s one way to recruit and nurture leaders worldwide,” said Retsinas.

Retsinas last volunteered in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was at a small township, and whites and blacks worked together to build homes. He saw that in addition to homebuilding, there was reconciliation from years of racism. Experiences like that produced a visceral reaction that made him want to volunteer more, Retsinas said.

Habitat celebrated its anniversary in September 2001 in Indianapolis. The celebration included training sessions and speeches by Kemp, former President Jimmy Carter and Habitat founder Millard Fuller. The Indianapolis affiliate also built and dedicated 25 homes.

In August, Carter returned to Asia for the annual Jimmy Carter Work Project. Volunteers from around the world built 120 houses in Seoul, South Korea. The project coincided with the first Habitat for Humanity International “World Leaders Build,” which involved current and former heads of state building Habitat homes in their capital cities.

President George W. Bush was the first to sign up for Habitat’s “World Leaders Build” program. Bush joined Habitat during National Homeownership Week in June to help build a home in Tampa, Fla.

Another of Habitat’s new programs is “Women Building a Legacy.” The 18-month program is designed to empower mothers and women of all ages to work together to solve the crisis of substandard housing. It also is committed to building at least 100 Habitat homes nationwide by the end of 2002.

The first project was a five-house building blitz in Denver last May. Volunteers included Cathy Keating, first lady of Oklahoma.

Through the years, Habitat houses have been built according to the same guiding principles. They must be:

  • Simple – Habitat houses are modestly sized – large enough for the homeowner family’s needs, but small enough to keep construction and maintenance costs to a minimum. For example, a three-bedroom house may have no more than 1,050 square feet of living space according to Habitat guidelines;
  • Decent – Habitat uses quality, locally available building materials. Trained staff supervise construction and educate volunteers and partner families. House designs reflect the local climate and culture; and
  • Affordable – The labor of volunteers and partner families, efficient building methods, modest house sizes and a no-profit, no-interest loan make it affordable for low-income people to purchase a Habitat home.

Habitat houses in North America are generally built using wood frame construction, with Gypsum board interior walls, vinyl siding and asphalt shingle roofs. Some affiliates also use proven alternative building materials such as adobe or straw bale construction. Basic design features include a zero-step entrance and wide passage doors and hallways. Houses built in partnership with families with disabilities include additional accessibility features. The average Habitat home in the United States costs $46,642.

A Habitat house usually takes 12 to 14 months to build. But the building blitzes Habitat sponsors take as little as a week to build homes.

Habitat also has an environmental initiative that teaches affiliate staff and volunteers to use sustainable construction techniques that conserve natural resources and reduce long-term costs for Habitat homeowners.

Investing in ‘sweat equity’

Homeowner families are expected to invest their own labor, or “sweat equity,” into the building of their homes and the homes of other families. This reduces the cost of the house and increases the pride of ownership. The homeowners’ monthly mortgage payments go into a revolving fund that is used to build more houses. Mortgage length varies from seven to 30 years. Homeowners also are expected to provide their own downpayments.

Habitat’s economic philosophy is based upon what Fuller calls the “economics of Jesus.” The no-profit, no-interest components of the program comes from a passage in the Bible (Exodus 22:25) that says those lending money to the poor should not act as creditors and charge interest.

“I see life as both a gift and a responsibility,” Fuller says. “My responsibility is to use what God has given me to help his people in need.”

All Habitat affiliates are asked to tithe, or give 10% of their contributions, to fund house-building work in other nations.

Habitat started when Fuller, a millionaire at the time, gave up his possessions and successful business to live on Koinonia Farm, a Christian community near Americus, Ga. During his stay there, he and his friends began a ministry in building modest homes on a no-profit, no-interest basis. Fuller, along with his wife, Linda, took this ministry to a mission in Africa, where it was a success. When they returned home in 1976, they formed Habitat as a new, independent organization.

Habitat, headquartered in Americus, has affiliates in more than 2,000 communities in 76 nations. Of the 17,208 Habitat homes built worldwide last year, 5,129 were in the United States. That is a 25% increase in production from a year earlier.

President promotes homeownership efforts

Acknowledging that the dream of homeownership eludes too many Americans, President Bush highlighted his proposed budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in a June 2001 radio address.

His 2002 budget dedicates more than $30 billion to HUD, an increase of almost $2 billion over the current funding levels, he said. Some Democrats in Congress, however, contend that the budget represents a cut in spending.

“One particular program, the American Dream Downpayment Fund, will provide $200 million in downpayment assistance to help 130,000 low-income families buy homes,” Bush said in his address that marked National Homeownership Week. “In addition, my administration announced earlier this week a program to allow people who receive low-income rental assistance to bundle a year’s worth of payments and use the money for a downpayment, or to make monthly payments on a new mortgage.”

His administration also is proposing a $1.7 billion tax credit to support the rehabilitation or new construction of up to 100,000 homes over a five-year period.

Bush noted that the rate of homeownership across all races in the United States is nearly 68%, but is less than 50% for African-American and Latino families.

He ended his address by encouraging citizens to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and other organizations “to make the American dream a reality for more families.”