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Advocacy in Action

To help reach the goal of safe, decent and affordable shelter for all, Habitat for Humanity works to change the systems, attitudes and policies that can lead to inadequate housing.

Case Study » Argentina

How one national organization employed a public campaign to help change a neighborhood.

Before becoming Habitat for Humanity Argentina’s national director, Ana Cutts spent more than 20 years working with the children of homeless mothers living in the conventillos, or slums, of Argentina’s capital city.

Most of the families living in these abandoned buildings and squatter houses come from rural Argentina or neighboring countries. They come to Buenos Aires to seek work or medical care. Because they have low income, no rental history and no collateral, they are unable to rent from reputable landlords.

“There may be as many as 400,000 people in Buenos Aires who crowd into these types of places,” Cutts says, “paying what is often a market-rate rent. But they have no choice. The conditions to rent formally are so severe that most of those in need of housing in the city are excluded.”

The neighborhood of La Boca is home to a multitude of these crowded, unhealthy buildings that parade as housing units for the poor. So Habitat Argentina launched a public campaign for a better solution. The plan: transform La Boca’s unused properties into safe, decent and accessible renting options.

With the support of local and international donors, Habitat Argentina purchased an aging former tenement building in 2010 with the intention of converting it into seven single-family, transitional apartment units. Families would pay a fair, no-profit rent to Habitat, with their payments going to a savings fund. After a family’s contract ends, the family can then use the saved funds to secure a formal rental home or to access a mortgage to buy their own house.

For the past year, Habitat Argentina has navigated local laws and political concerns to move their plan forward. City officials wondered if an old building was worth converting and questioned if Habitat Argentina’s renovation efforts would preserve La Boca’s distinctive culture and architectural style.

“To address the first question,” Cutts says, “we opened the building to the public to show what reality is like for families living behind these facades, to meet some of these people in need and show the neighborhood our project.”

Courtesy Habitat Argentina

A signature wall became part of Habitat Argentina’s advocacy efforts.

Visitors were invited to sign part of a wooden wall that will eventually be taken down, preserved and displayed in the hallway of the converted building. Habitat Argentina’s staffers and volunteers knew they were winning over the neighborhood when they read some of the 100-plus comments written on the wall:

Nunca dejen de sonar. “Never stop dreaming.”

Tu hogar es tu mundo, con amor. “Your home is your world, with love.”

Bienvenidos a La Boca. Por muchas mas soluciones! Gracias, Silvana Canzioni. “Welcome to La Boca. May there be many more solutions! Gracias, Silvana Canzioni.” (Canzioni is the president of La Boca’s neighborhood association.)

Habitat Argentina’s detailed explanation of its building plan took care of the city’s stylistic concerns. Balconies, a roof terrace and an open ground floor with a back patio — all features characteristic of the neighborhood — will be included in the building’s new design.

Construction is approved to begin early this year, and Habitat Argentina now has a clear path to replicate the project in other neighborhoods. “This project is not seen as one building, but as paving the way for future, bigger projects,” she says. “We want to use this to raise visibility and awareness, to gradually change the conditions in the renting market as well as the public policies surrounding construction by nonprofits in the city.”

Part of that long-term strategy includes recruiting donors, volunteers and advocates — from Argentina and beyond. In October 2011, a Build Louder advocacy team visited Argentina from Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake, in Baltimore, Maryland. The team toured La Boca, talked with local families and took home Habitat Argentina’s story to share with others. Since 2009, Habitat has sent out several Build Louder teams — filled with volunteers and affiliate staffers — on one- or two-week visits to Habitat programs in Latin America. Each time, locally based staff teach participants about local poverty housing issues and enable them to effectively advocate for solutions — both while on the trip and once they return home.

“Throughout our time in Argentina, we witnessed inspiring success despite facing vulnerabilities and obstacles,” says Jose Quinonez, Habitat’s director of advocacy capacity-building, who coordinated the Build Louder trip. “There were many communities like La Boca, in which common need has pushed individuals to seek collaborative solutions.”

In the course of the Build Louder visit, Habitat Argentina and Habitat Chesapeake realized common ground. Just as it has been in La Boca, success in Maryland also hinges on changing public perceptions in order to achieve neighborhood revitalization.

“To hear from the staff of Habitat of the Chesapeake about their similar challenges in inner-city projects was motivating and comforting for us with Habitat Argentina,” Cutts says. “Sharing experiences — whether they be joys, blessings, or challenges and frustrations — is one of the great values of the global Habitat for Humanity family.”

Be an Advocate

Nearly 2 billion people around the world live in substandard, unhealthy housing conditions. Habitat believes each of these men, women and children should have a safe, affordable place to live.

Find out how you can advocate for policies, projects and attitudes that lead to better housing for those in need — within your own community and around the world.

Habitat on the Hill

From Feb. 8-10, Habitat for Humanity International will hold its annual advocacy and legislative conference in the heart of Washington, D.C. Each year, the event promises networking opportunities, advocacy skills, and an effective way for Habitat affiliates and supporters to take their knowledge to Capitol Hill — and back home again.

“We have been very successful in working with legislators across the political spectrum,” says Habitat CEO Jonathan Reckford. “We know that Habitat for Humanity can be as much about changing and improving systems that enable access to decent housing as about building and renovating homes.”

To learn more about the event as it unfolds, follow the hashtag #HabitatontheHill on Twitter.