banner image
Laying foundations -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Laying foundations

When communities are in quiet crisis, houses aren’t the only things that Habitat can build.



Phuong and her husband use the water pump they installed just outside their home, thanks to a microfinance loan from Habitat Vietnam and one of its partner organizations.


In its many years of affordable-housing work around the world, Habitat for Humanity has learned that sometimes physical foundations aren’t the only kind needed to achieve simple, decent homes. New construction remains a top priority, but partnering with families also can mean learning about their individual situations and adapting approaches to include new elements.

“For most poor families in the developing world, housing is a process,” says Mike Carscaddon, executive vice president of Habitat’s international division. “Families may not be able to afford a new house, but they can greatly improve their housing conditions incrementally over time as their needs and resources change. Our programs must be relevant to these various needs and appropriately matched to a family’s resources.”

What if a family has a place to live, but can no longer afford to stay because of electricity costs? What if a family has a house, but stays sick because of a contaminated water supply—or spends an inordinate amount of time collecting cleaner water? And if a family’s finances remain overwhelming and day-to-day, how will they ever know with certainty that they can afford to improve their living conditions?

These are just a few of the questions that Habitat organizations around the world are encountering and addressing through innovative supplemental programs—programs like the ones featured here that help achieve Habitat’s mission in exciting, exponentially growing ways.

Creating energy efficiency

Helena and her family—daughter Judita and three grandchildren—have lived in a truck on the streets of Moldova nad Bodvou, in eastern Slovakia, for some time. They’re happy, Helena says, to have this roof above their heads. In 2004, the family spent a few months on the street.

Helena still does not understand how it happened. She and her husband used to have a cozy two-bedroom apartment with central heating. But with the fall of communism and Slovakia’s subsequent transition to a market-oriented economy, housing expenses skyrocketed. After Helena’s husband died, the family could no longer pay the electricity costs for heating and cooking. Within a couple of years, the widow changed apartments numerous times, choosing smaller and smaller spaces, but still she could not outrace the utility bills. When her debt reached 3,000 euros (a little more than US$4,000), the family was evicted. For months, they lived on the streets, until a charity offered them the old truck they inhabit now.

With the help of Habitat Slovakia, Helena hopes to move into a simple and decent home. This time, she says, it should be affordable and energy-efficient—so history does not repeat itself.

During communism, few in Eastern Europe worried about electricity and gas, as supplies were plentiful and cheap, usually subsidized by governments. Since then, however, people have been forced to pay small fortunes. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, a family of three can spend as much as 240,000 euros, or US$330,000, on heat over a 40-year period.

But it’s not just the costs—traditional energy supplies in the region are quickly drying up, and delivery is unreliable. In central and eastern Europe, gas supplies from Russia were cut off during winter 2008 because of a political dispute. Bulgaria and Slovakia suffered the most; in rural areas, families were left without gas to heat homes or prepare food.

The need to reduce heating bills is essential for low-income families partnering with Habitat. Having a house is important; being able to heat it efficiently and affordably is key. To help alleviate the burden, Habitat Europe/Central Asia creates energy-efficient renovations in eastern Slovakia and western Ukraine. With home improvements such as insulated doors, windows and flooring, families can cut energy expenses and achieve greater savings. That’s a start.

But how can we keep newly constructed homes warm, even with limited resources? Almost a decade ago, engineers came up with “passive house technology,” a building that does not require active heating or cooling systems. Its layout, structure and all the materials used for construction are designed to retain heat and fresh air, adjusting to the outside temperature. “Passive houses” consume 10 times less energy than conventional modern buildings. Habitat Bulgaria currently is adapting this technology to local needs for 12 new homes slated to be built in Kostinbrod, a small city near Sofia.

Empowering through financial literacy education



Helena stands near the truck that she and her family now call home; the family was driven from their apartment some time ago by escalating energy costs in Slovakia.


Sound financial management can make the difference between homeownership and homelessness, especially for low-income families. That’s why Habitat offers financial literacy workshops to families around the world, with the help and investment of partner Citi Foundation in many locations.

The program has existed in Habitat’s Latin America and the Caribbean area for four years. Financial education workshops, now in 13 countries throughout the region, have provided some 10,000 low-income families with tools that will help them tackle a family budget and save for the future. Families who attend financial education workshops learn how to take stock of their income, prioritize expenses, create budgets and follow savings plans for specific home improvements.

“In the majority of countries in our region, the formal education system does not teach family budgeting or how to manage home finances,” says Mario Moran, Habitat LAC’s financial education manager. “This is a great opportunity for families—but not only that. Workshop participants also return to their communities and, either directly or indirectly, pass on what they have learned to their families, neighbors and friends.”

As a result of the program, families also become more successful in developing savings, which in turn increases their ability to invest in their homes and communities.

Hilariana and her husband, Manuel, make just enough to cover their monthly expenses—including the payments on their Habitat Mexico home. While month after month they would manage to scrape by, saving for the future seemed to be an impossible goal.

Aware of their struggle, Habitat staff invited the couple to participate in a financial education workshop in Valle del Mezquital, Hidalgo. There, they learned how to use a budget to prioritize their expenses and found that—by eliminating unnecessary expenses—it was possible to set something aside for the future.

“Learning to plan in advance for our expenses has made us feel as if we actually have more money, even though we’re earning the same,” says Hilariana. “And we don’t go around spending money on things that seem insignificant but aren’t necessities. These small savings we set aside so that, little by little, we will have something there for when we really need it.”

The financial literacy project, which also creates access to small loans for much-needed repairs and renovations, is being implemented in phases around the world. In Europe and Central Asia, it began last year with three countries—Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia. In Habitat’s Africa and the Middle East area, 2009 saw pilot programs begin to develop in Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda and Lebanon. Plans also are being made in Poland, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, Macedonia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

“Financial education adds value to Habitat’s housing programs,” Moran says. “Habitat hopes to continue serving thousands of families per year through financial education. We want families to be able to expand their options in the struggle for viable ways to improve the way that they live.”

Improving access to clean water and sanitation



Habitat Mexico staff members hold financial education workshops, working with partner families on budgets and prioritization.


In much of the developing world, whole days can revolve around a struggle for clean water—and lives can be threatened by its absence.

Take Vietnam, for example. A global report released by the World Health Organization last year shows that more than 20,000 people die in Vietnam each year because of poor water, sanitation and hygiene.

A national survey by Vietnam’s own Health Ministry showed that while more than half of the rural population have some form of sanitation facilities, only 18 percent of them have access to latrines that meet the ministry’s hygiene standards.

For every dollar invested in water and sanitation improvements, $8 in benefits and savings could be realized, according to WHO. In Vietnam, such improvements would translate annually into 500 million productive days at work or at school and more than US$7 billion savings in health care costs.

According to Dr. Jean-Marc Olivé, a WHO representative in Vietnam, solutions need not be high-tech. “Simple latrines combined with frequent hand washing with soap can be very effective in reducing infections,” he says. “When people can access clean water close to—or in—their homes, there are significant health benefits.”

Since 2002, Habitat Vietnam has worked to improve living conditions around the country, where about a quarter of the population is considered poor. Through housing microfinance services and technical support, Habitat has served more than 3,000 families with sustainable shelter, clean water or adequate sanitation facilities. In mid-2008, sanitation and water projects represented about half of the program’s efforts.

Habitat Vietnam seeks to alleviate the serious issue of poor water, sanitation and hygiene in the country through innovative programs and partnerships. Habitat has water and sanitation specialists who support teams that develop appropriate clean water solutions for urban and rural dwellers throughout the country. By supporting district- and community-level water and sanitation committees formed by local governments, Habitat communicates information on hygienic practices and collaborates with local organizations on decentralized wastewater treatment projects.

All of which translates to better, healthier lives.

Rice farmer Men used to dread the annual rains. Lack of drainage in the yard of her Xuan Hoa home in northern Vietnam—a space she uses to raise pigs and poultry—meant a contaminated water supply. Concerned about the safety and health of her family, Men took a 6-million-dong microfinance loan (US$350) to build a new kitchen, repair a toilet and pave the yard. Now, she says, her family feels better.

Not far away, in Hung Yen province, Phuong used to make multiple trips to fetch water from her mother’s house. Her own family’s lack of access to clean water meant long walks to a water pump shared by four other families. Since she could only carry a limited amount of water on her own, much of her day was taken up just walking to and from the pump. The weight of the water containers, combined with the heat of the day, made her collection effort so great that working as a day laborer and caring for her two children became nearly impossible.

But with a loan of 2 million Vietnamese dong (US$116) from Habitat’s microfinance partner, the Women’s Union in Hung Yen, Phuong and her husband installed a water pump outside their home. With the time and energy she formerly invested on the road between her house and the water pump, Phuong has since started a small grocery business selling items such as sugar and fish sauce to increase her family income—and to help repay the loan

Now, Phuong and her husband have taken a second microfinance loan to repair their home. She is thankful, she says, to Habitat and its partner for this better life.

Reporting by Stephanie Banas, Katerina Bezgachina, Shala Carlson and Hiew Peng Wong