The Publication of Habitat for Humanity International | April/May 2004
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Harry and Teresa Russell have lived in their Habitat house in Houston since 1998. They credit the house with freeing them from day-to-day scrambling to cover expenses.

Habitat houses Yield Safety and Security
The benefits of Habitat homeownership extend beyond the theoretical to the practical.

Did you know...
…that unlike previous generations, today's children have less hope than ever of being able to buy a house on a moderate income? According to the National Association of Realtors, the average house price in the United States has risen from $72,800 in 1980 to $224,000 (estimated) in 2004.

by Rebekah Daniel

"Measure twice, cut once." Many a volunteer has heard and put into practice this construction proverb--usually after cutting something to the wrong length. After all, accurate measurements are essential in building a strong, durable house, and the time spent measuring materials carefully has lasting rewards.

Habitat supporters are finding that measuring the benefits of owning a Habitat house has rewards, as well. For decades, researchers have documented the extent and ramifications of poverty and substandard housing, resulting in an impressive universe of reports, studies and Web sites. Unfortunately, there is less documentation that directly highlights the tangible influences of safe, affordable housing. Even so, the benefits are just as real as the recognized signposts of poverty.

One of the key indicators of the impact of Habitat housing is safety. It has two aspects: the capacity of the house to shelter the partner family and enable them to lead healthful lives, and the quality of life in the neighborhoods surrounding Habitat houses.

For the de los Santos family in Lawrence, Mass., safe housing means accessible housing. Concepcion de los Santos was born with a medical condition that began worsening in 1996, eventually confining him to a wheelchair. The family found housing they could afford after Concepcion's wife, Ileana, found a job in a nursing home, and his oldest daughter, Glorialyz, worked after school as well. But the family grew frustrated as their housing unit was passed over for accessibility improvements.

"You can't be negative all the time," Glorialyz says. "You just accept things and try to move on. But it started to affect us."

The de los Santoses are scheduled to begin construction on their Habitat house in May. Once they move in, their worries--wondering whether Concepcion would be able to get out of the house in an emergency, the heavy lifting for his daily shower--will lessen.

"For my dad, he'll have more accessibility to certain things," Glorialyz says. "Everything will be reachable, the light switches will not be too far away, the door handle will be comfortable. He won't have to worry about getting stuck in a door in his chair."

Marshall Green partnered with Genesee HFH in Flint, Mich., to build his handicap-accessible house, complete with low cabinets, a ramp and other features.

From a community standpoint, Habitat houses can have an impact on the safety of the neighborhoods in which they are located. Neighborhood residents, encouraged to invest in their own properties after witnessing a Habitat house build, often find new motivation to clean up. In Pensacola, Fla., in a precinct with six Habitat houses, city police department statistics in 1998 showed a four-year decrease in vehicular burglary (-66 percent), residential burglary (-17.5 percent), narcotic sales (-51 percent) and narcotic felony possession (-18.5 percent).

Health also is a measurable indicator of the influence Habitat houses have on the families living in them. Lead-based paint in older houses can harm young children who accidentally ingest it, and dangers such as insect and rodent infestations can trigger asthma, leading to emergency room visits, missed school classes and time away from work.

Habitat houses, designed to meet or exceed building codes, can make a dramatic difference in a family's health. Before Shirley Clemmer moved into her Habitat house in Cobb County, Ga., she and her three children lived in a basement apartment. Her youngest son began an inexplicable pattern of waking up at night with high fevers and seizures. Test results revealed allergies to mold and mildew.

"When we got the Habitat house and got him in a controlled environment, I could tell a big difference in him," Clemmer says.

A third benefit of a Habitat house, for the Clemmers as well as thousands of others, is the financial security it fosters. Habitat's zero-interest mortgages are low enough to allow homeowners to plan and save, and unlike rent, Habitat mortgage payments stay constant over time. Clemmer paid off her mortgage in 15 years and now owns her house, free and clear. That kind of security, she says, means peace of mind.

"I know I've got a place to live," she says. "If all else fails, I've got my own home."

It is not only homeownership that benefits Habitat's family partners, but also Habitat's method of preparing them for homeownership responsibilities. Studies have shown that pre-purchase counseling can reduce 90-day delinquency rates by 34 percent. Part of Habitat's version of pre-purchase counseling is "sweat equity," the principle that homeowners invest time in building their own house and the houses of others. Often, sweat equity includes attending classes in budgeting, insurance, maintenance and other topics that equip homeowners for success.

The evidence continues to mount that Habitat houses, through their capacity to create financial security, healthful living spaces and safe communities, tangibly impact the families who live in them and the partners who help build them. Yet even in the absence of documentation, volunteers and homeowners believe in the results.

"Sociologists and scientists and their studies tell us that better housing means better health, better educational achievement, more stable families, often better jobs," says Habitat affiliate support manager Mark Lassman-Eul. "We know that even without the studies. Our personal experiences, our own eyes, our hearts, and our gut intuition tell us this is the case."

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