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Learning lessons -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Learning lessons

For students, a Habitat house has benefits beyond its four walls.
By Rebekah Daniel


The children of Habitat homeowners around the world gain the stability that is a side effect of achieving affordable housing. Photo by Ezra Millstein


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After more than two decades of volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, Ellen Williams of Greenville, S.C., has stories to tell. But there is one that comes to mind that still resonates with her, years after the event took place.

Not long after Habitat for Humanity of Greenville County was founded in 1985, a group of affiliate supporters and Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller took a trip into the mountains to see a house dedication. Though most of the children at the dedication had never seen a microphone before, one little girl stepped up to tell what her new house meant to her.

“They handed the mic to a girl who said she didn’t have to be ashamed of what was behind her when she got on the school bus,” Williams says. “That made a big impression on me, since we were busing kids from downtown out to the suburbs to go to school.

“The middle school kids had started getting ashamed of where they lived. If the whole neighborhood was poor, and they didn’t notice they were poor, it didn’t bother them. But if they drove through a nice neighborhood to a nice school, they started getting uncomfortable with where they lived.”

It was not the first time she had noticed a connection between housing conditions and a child’s educational experiences. As a substitute teacher and volunteer with a local homeless shelter, and later as a volunteer with Head Start, she had worked with children who, though otherwise very different, all had one thing in common: unstable housing. As families hopped from apartment to apartment in search of lower rents, the children lost their footing. Head Start intervention helped somewhat, and Williams started to wonder if addressing the housing issues might make an even bigger difference.

Though housing is notoriously difficult to isolate from issues such as neighborhood security and income levels for research purposes, several studies have shown definite connections between different housing problems and children’s educational outcomes.

From a physical perspective, two housing-related health issues—lead poisoning and asthma—surface in the discussion of children and education. Even though lead-based paint was banned for use in the home in 1978, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that approximately 24 million homes still have significant lead-based paint hazards today. Lead poisoning’s effects are irreversible and can include reduced IQs, impaired growth and neurological development, and behavior problems, according to several studies completed in the early 1990s. Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable as their brains and central nervous systems are still developing, and lead can interfere with this process. Asthma, the most common chronic disease among children, occurs at higher rates among poor children and can be caused or aggravated by environmental factors such as mold, dust mites, mice and cockroaches, as well as the pesticides and chemicals used to treat housing for such allergens.

From an economic point of view, affordability becomes a determining factor in other housing stress points, such as overcrowding, poor neighborhood quality and housing cost burdens for parents. Each of these has an implication for education. In overcrowded homes, a lack of quiet, uncluttered space to study can harm a child’s ability to learn; dangerous neighborhoods leave few productive activities for children during non-school hours; financially strapped parents are occupied with keeping the lights on and food on the table, leaving little time or energy for attending school functions.

Perhaps the most detrimental characteristic of housing problems as far as education is concerned, however, is a high rate of student mobility. While parents chase affordable rents from location to location, move voluntarily to avoid dangerous living conditions or lose their homes after job loss, children negotiate changes of their own, drifting in and out of classrooms, peer networks and curricula. The problem is not only the elusiveness of solids walls and a roof, but the disruption in the child’s sense of community and belonging.

If a family moves away from home, the child’s world changes. “You’re going to a brand-new school, you don’t know anyone, you don’t feel safe, you don’t know the curriculum,” says Sid Ong, a Portland, Ore.-area elementary school principal. “All of a sudden, you start developing gaps in your education.”

From an administrative perspective, the challenges mount as well. The educational gaps of a few children can impact the entire classroom as teachers struggle to cover new material while getting some students caught up on the basics they missed in another school. “They go quiet on you,” Ong says, “and you find as you move up in the grades, the holes become daunting to fill. We start noticing dropouts around the 8th grade.”

The signs of housing stress, Ong says, are recognizable even to those who don’t spend more than a few minutes in a classroom. Teachers recognize that unstable housing can manifest itself in behavior problems, incomplete assignments and an inability to stay awake during class. Other students know this, too.

“The other kids know where people live, they know the situation,” Ong says. “We’re really lucky here that the kids are really supportive of each other. They do their best to recognize those kids who don’t have the same environment, and they support them. They help them with their work in subtle ways.” Not everyone is so lucky.

The factors that cause this instability—and the solutions Habitat programs employ to mitigate it—are both simple and complex. On one hand is a straightforward conflict between the cost of housing and available income.

“We’ve seen house prices go up,” says Habitat Portland/Metro East executive director Steve Messinetti. “They’ve doubled in the past 10 years, and incomes have hardly changed. In our county, the average low-income family moves every 15 months because of rising rents.”

On the other hand, factors ranging from urban renewal to immigration trends are driving the price increases. In Portland, an urban renewal effort some years ago was largely successful in making inner-city housing desirable for professionals with higher income levels than the current residents. Consequently, prices rose, and those families with limited or low incomes started moving out, looking for affordable housing wherever they could find it. Affordable housing also attracted families following jobs to the area who were new to the city, the region, the country.

“You get pockets where the majority of the population is new to the community, and the areas are not neighborhood-oriented,” Messinetti says. “The federal and local dollars are going to the areas that needed renewal in the past and not to the new areas. The money hasn’t caught up with the need.”

Along with the need for adequate, affordable shelter is the need for community, that sense of belonging to a place, that can reassure highly mobile families that it is now safe to put down roots, to sign their kids up for sports teams with confidence that they’ll finish the season in the same place. Habitat Portland has been building both.


Julie Hommes moved into her Habitat house with her husband, Fernando Madrid, in 2005. Siblings Jarret, Elina, Mylie and Rio welcomed another brother, Felix, two years ago. Photo courtesy Habitat Portland/Metro East


Julie Hommes became a Habitat homeowner in March 2005, moving into a new house and a new community on the same day. Fourteen other Habitat families live in her neighborhood, and while many of them do not share even a native language, the process of building each others’ houses and learning to be homeowners—together—has created a bond.

“When you’re renting and moving all the time, your neighbors change all the time and you don’t get to know them,” Hommes says. “My neighbors here are like really close friends. It’s a really different experience from what I was used to before becoming a homeowner.

“I know if I don’t get home on time, my kids can go to anyone’s house and be safe,” she continues. “If I’m writing a huge paper, I can sit on my porch and watch my kids play and still feel like I’m still doing a good job as a mom.”

Of Hommes’ five children, the two youngest may gain the strongest benefit from the stability of Habitat homeownership; they will come home each afternoon of their school careers to the same house, the same neighbors, the same community. But the predictability and affordability of their Habitat mortgage is opening educational opportunities for Julie and her husband, Fernando, right now. Both of them are following long-deferred dreams in higher education: Fernando, who currently works at a bilingual school as a community liaison to Spanish-speaking parents and assistant kindergarten teacher, has begun work on his master’s degree in education. Julie will finish her liberal arts degree in about a year and a half and hopes to continue on with a master of divinity degree.

“I’m thinking I may be a chaplain, or maybe teaching,” she says. “Before this I was trying to think more money-wise, maybe nursing. It wasn’t really my passion—I wasn’t thinking about what I would do if money weren’t the deciding factor in all the decisions of my life.

“If I were renting, I would worry about the rent going up, having to move, changing schools with the kids. Now that we’re in this house, we’re not going to be looking for a place to live. We can afford to live here. Habitat has been a huge blessing because it took away that stress.

“With my kids seeing me read and write papers, I don’t have to preach at them that it’s important to go to school. They can see it.”

With volunteers from all walks of life building together and homeowners investing sweat and time in the construction of their homes, the Habitat model of building houses and communities can impact a child’s education above and beyond the simple advantage of a safe, warm and stable place to sleep, Ong says.

“It’s a great model for kids to see how a group of people can come together and make something positive happen and not have a vested interest per se,” he says. “And they get to see their parents really building something that is the underpinning bedrock of the family itself. They look at that and say, ‘I can accomplish anything. I can give back.’ They want to go to college and become a professional in such a way they want to give back.”

About 29 million children in the United States lived in low-income families in 2000, running a higher risk of housing problems and the accompanying educational challenges. Today, Habitat has built more than 300,000 houses around the world, housing almost a million children. At the heart of the mission are the families—and the children—who have so much to gain.

“With a family, you’ve got to have stability,” Hommes says. “You’ve got to have roots. An organization like Habitat is saying, ‘We value families. We value each kid.’ This is a place for families to grow and develop and blossom.”