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Affordable Housing

Habitat for Humanity: Lessons from the front lines of the housing crisis


For many Americans, their initial association with Habitat for Humanity may be “Jimmy Carter on a work site,” but this international nonprofit has become a multifaceted housing developer that offers a wide range of programs to enable home ownership for a segment of the population that faces many impediments. Habitat’s work in some of the most economically challenged places in America has given the organization a unique perspective on the many aspects of the housing crisis.

Strong Towns spoke with Tawkiyah Jordan, Habitat for Humanity’s Vice President of Housing and Community Strategy, and Kevin Hiebert, U.S. Office Innovation Manager (both say they hate titles!), about how the organization continues to pursue housing construction in the face of difficult conditions, why good schools are more important than you realize, and why Habitat owners participate in the construction of their homes. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

The Dearth of Starter Homes

Jordan: If you look at the numbers, what we know is that there's almost no new construction in the starter home market. Those are homes we're defining as costing below $300,000 or being 1,000 square feet or less. That is not a place where private developers are working. This means that for households interested in leaving the rental space, there are limited opportunities. And for Habitat, that means we have a niche in the market. However, it's not a profit center. And with land becoming more scarce, and construction costs skyrocketing in the last five or so years, it has become almost impossible.

Why Homeownership Is So Important

Jordan: We're seeing families that are doubled and tripled up to afford housing. Also, families living in inadequate housing or low-quality housing. The thing that people are really looking for is cost stability — they're looking for an opportunity to keep their housing costs the same over the long term so they can invest in other household needs. Cost stability is best in this country when you have a mortgage, right? And what we don't think about is the fact that it is available to (higher-income Americans). So the more wealthy of us have this cost stability, and an increased ability to invest in other things, while those who have the most need and the least resources are in more precarious situations where their rents can increase significantly over time.

And so I want to kind of turn that on its head a bit and think about how we can offer housing cost stability to lower-income families. And if that mechanism right now is called homeownership, then that's what we're looking to do. So while the pressures are intense, I think what Habitat is doing to maintain its direction is becoming more innovative and creative about the way we do our work.

Why Is Building Housing So Hard?

Jordan: We have about 1,100 affiliates across the country in all 50 states. And so we can aggregate some of those challenges. They tell us that there's a shrinking base of skilled workers to participate in building homes. And then we compete in the same marketplace for those tradespeople, which means we're competing with private developers when we need lower costs in order to build and build. So we do employ volunteers quite a bit, especially skilled volunteers, which we’re lucky enough to have continue working with us as partners.

There’s also a financing issue in which subsidies cannot be used for affordable ownership. And then, I guess, NIMBYism is right up there with the rest. Even in communities where Habitat is building what look like traditional single-family homes, there's still pushback about “those folks living in my neighborhood.”

As time has gone forward, we've had to become more sophisticated in the ways that we do our work. And that's from end to end, meaning that we have to consider ourselves builders as well as conveners of community and teachers in the construction trade. We also do our own mortgage financing, so we are part of the finance community.

The Challenge of Rising Land Costs

Hiebert: For many years, this has been an issue in (places like) New York and San Francisco. I think now we're seeing it in those mid-sized markets — it’s in Indianapolis or the college town in Texas. There’s this culminating effect where even formerly Rust Belt cities are having this resurgence. So I think that's another element where it's becoming less of an urban issue and more a national issue for affordability.

Because of the densification of lots, developers are now doing infill where, in the past, those lots might have been (available to Habitat). Developers have caught wind and realized they can build smaller single-family homes and make a little money off that. So the kind of model that worked in the 70s and 80s, when land was plentiful, has changed and affiliates are now facing this existential crisis of, how do we then navigate and then really begin to change our models to become 21st-century affordable house builders?

It Takes More Than a House

Jordan: We look to help the people we serve (join) communities where they will find resources for themselves and their families: schools, food, infrastructure, all the things that everybody wants in their community. So as you try to get into communities where there's more opportunity, you do get more pushback very often, or you get pushed to the edge of a community in light industrial areas. There's a challenge that right now the pressures are pushing affordable housing into new places. You have to have the political will in communities to change that. And that's challenging to do, especially in smaller cities.

Hiebert: I think for a lot of Habitats, they've worked from the surplus — from the city giving one or two lots a year that no one wanted. It was the tax repossession. Adding our focus on quality of life has also made affiliates recognize that just getting a home by the railroad tracks with a factory beside it may not be the best choice for that family.

Schools Are the Great Equalizer

Jordan: Infrastructure-wise, I would say that schools are probably the biggest challenge for our families — finding communities where they can afford to live, where their children can go to quality schools and where they feel safe. I'm from an inner city, so I know the struggle of living in neighborhoods that are less well-served or invested in by the government and the impact of that, specifically on the school systems. And in the United States, schools are one of the biggest predictors of home values. And so thinking about just that cycle, of how school quality can depress home values and then, as a consequence, also lead to decreased investment in those neighborhoods.

Housing is More Than a Roof Over Your Head

Jordan: The dignity in housing is core to Habitat’s mission. The mission statement is very brief, it just says that we are working toward a world where everyone has a decent place to live. Part of why we invite our partner families to participate in the design and construction of their own homes is because we want them to understand that this is not a process of us landing in their communities and doing something for them, which is very paternalistic, but that we're really there to support them in the goals we know they already have. We all want the same things. We all want a safe place to be, a place to feel at home and at peace, and a place to care for our families. I think one of the most beautiful things about what we currently term "sweat equity" is that communities actually come to participate as well, whether it's the immediate family members or other folks in the Habitat homeowner community who come to support the next homeowner that's coming on board.

Hiebert: For me, it comes down to, at the core, belonging. With homeownership, many families were historically in communities long term where they built stability. And I think much of our fragmentation, isolation and depression is because now families are struggling. And then with rent increases and then this transient level of children within schools. So at the core, housing is about the center of belonging — and then giving the ability to be stable — that allows the deeper connected roots that a lot of middle-class families have had the benefit of. I'm really curious about what this constant shifting environment does to the ripple effects of what we're experiencing with larger societal ills.

How to Be an Effective Housing Advocate

Jordan: Every place is different, but I think one place to start is talking to realtors in your area. There are some (realtors) that are just going for the highest return on that investment of time, but there are others that are committed to understanding the housing landscape and how they fit in. So I have found realtors key to understanding what's happening. They often get the first whispers of what even the private market is doing.

You could also look at the housing documentation or reporting that the local government is doing. Most local governments do (this kind of reporting) because most local governments receive HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) funding every year. So understanding, what does the city government think about the condition of housing in the community?

Plus simple things like going to city council or planning board meetings, and reading out a public statement about what's happening at the local level, the challenges that your neighbors are facing. All of that makes a difference. Also getting together with your neighbors — numbers matter. One voice alone is great. But if you can call your neighbors together, and in coalition with other advocates and organizations, you can make some real change.

Neighborhood Power Is a Difference-Maker

Hiebert: There's a great example with our affiliate in Lafayette, Louisiana (which competed for the title of Strongest Town in 2017), taking a very place-based approach, where they have focused on a specific neighborhood and have added up to 30 to 40 homes where they're actually changing the face of blocks. That Habitat affiliate is now at the center of challenging a big interstate project (that could bring) drastic impacts to the neighborhood, building community engagement to give residents a voice at the table in those decisions. In every neighborhood, there's a tipping point where it goes from being a marginalized community that everyone has ignored to one where there's money to be made.

Jordan: I've come to understand that the true measure of how a community is going to grow and develop over time is the power they've accumulated in their relationship to government. So when you've developed enough power to be able to say, “You may not make decisions for us, you must make decisions with us,” it changes the trajectory of that community. I worked in the South Bronx for about 10 years. And one of the most interesting things about some of the communities that have come together is how they have developed the power to say no to city government. It's still one of the poorest communities in the nation, but they have identified an opportunity to come together in coalition with their elected officials and impress upon the city that they can't make decisions in the dark.

I'm an urban planner. I love the theory and the practice. But I've actually learned from organizers the value of organizing and advocacy. And the thing that most of us don't do well in community development is build local institutions. Local institutions that are stable and have the interests of the community in mind are incredibly important to maintaining that power from one generation to the next in that community.

Habitat for Humanity, Affordable Housing, Housing Costs, Strong Towns, How can I help Habitat for Humanity?


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