banner image
Reuse, renew, rebuild -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Reuse, renew, rebuild

In the face of urgent housing needs, Habitat takes a closer look at some resourceful ways to help families find decent, affordable housing.



Since Habitat’s beginning, renovations have been an important method of providing affordable housing opportunities. A Collegiate Challenge participant helps renovate a house in Birmingham, Ala., in 2000.


By Rebekah Daniel

Breathless, smiling volunteers walk a grid of lumber from flat to vertical on the edge of a foundation, cheering as the frame is secured to the concrete.

Over the course of a day, recognizable outlines of a house take shape, and the volunteers go home a little sunburned and sore, perhaps, but satisfied in the knowledge that as they drift off to sleep, one family is a little closer to the day in which they will lay their own heads to sleep next to those strong, lovingly placed walls.

Habitat for Humanity has been building houses in partnership with low-income families in the United States in this fashion for more than 30 years, and it is a very good thing. More than 300,000 families have constructed their safe, affordable homes from the first shovel of groundbreaking to the last finish nail, paying their mortgages and funding the construction of additional safe, affordable homes. This Habitat model has been proven to work.

And yet.

According to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, more than 17 million people in the United States paid more than half their incomes for housing in 2006. Since then, jobs have evaporated and the economy has contracted, squeezing families who were barely making ends meet in better times. A new house, even on affordable terms, isn’t necessarily the solution.

“The classic Habitat model of single-family houses using infill lots is not fully addressing some of the most urgent needs of communities with devastating foreclosure rates,” says Mark Andrews, senior director of U.S. operations at Habitat for Humanity International. “A lot of affiliates are having to rethink their business models.”

Now more than ever, Habitat for Humanity affiliates across the United States are taking a closer look at expanding their options to reduce costs and rebuild much-needed housing—and they’re partnering with more organizations and municipalities to renew the communities in which their houses stand. The mission to build decent, affordable housing has not changed; in fact, its relevance has been reinforced. However, the space between current conditions and the vision of “decent housing in decent communities” holds a universe of possibilities.

One of the new possibilities is, in fact, an old strategy for many of the more urban Habitat affiliates. Renovating or rehabilitating existing housing has long been the method of choice for Habitat organizations working in inner city contexts for a variety of reasons: It takes advantage of existing infrastructure, municipalities often are willing to partner with affiliates to acquire properties, and it helps renew the sense of community already in place.

Battle Creek Area Habitat for Humanity in Michigan started out doing rehabs more than 20 years ago. Though the affiliate has since added new construction to its roster of skills, rehabs remain an important part of its community-building work.

“There’s some real value to rehabs over new houses, especially in zero-growth communities such as ours,” executive director Art Pearce says. “We find that we’re really adding a lot of value to the neighborhoods when we improve them with an essentially brand-new house in a neighborhood that is otherwise deteriorating.

“We are cautious about taking on too big of a house,” he continues. “Some of these monstrous old houses are 3,000 or 4,000 square feet. We’ve got to be careful and look at the affordability factor in doing something like that. But we are really gung-ho on rehabs and find that the families appreciate them, too. …We have found that some of our larger families with lower incomes wouldn’t be able to afford a brand-new home, but they can afford a rehab, and quite often because of their size, we can accommodate them with a five- or six-bedroom house.”

Collier County Habitat for Humanity, located on the Gulf coast of Florida, has found itself in the rehab business by virtue of economic necessity—and opportunity.

“I love building new houses,” says Sam Durso, the affiliate’s president and chief executive officer. “We’ve built over a hundred houses a year for the last seven years. [But] about a year ago a light went off , and we realized there were a lot of foreclosures. The county made a lot of CDBG [Community Development Block Grant] money available for rehabs, and in the last year, we’ve purchased 36 houses for rehab.”

The houses are located in an area called Naples Manor, a development of about 3,000 home sites in which Habitat has already built some 250 houses. The cost of purchasing the foreclosed house and rehabilitations, which include a new roof, new kitchen and new air conditioning system, is roughly equivalent to building a new house, Durso says. However, by purchasing foreclosed properties and renovating them, Habitat is helping those current Habitat homeowners maintain their property values by preventing blight.

An ounce of prevention



The rehabilitated Habitat unit on the left contrasts with its neighbor in Camden, New Jersey.


Habitat homeowners certainly are not the only stakeholders benefiting from well-maintained, living neighborhoods. A Brush with Kindness, a nationwide Habitat program sponsored by Valspar Paint, assists low-income homeowners struggling to maintain the outside of their houses because of age, disability or family circumstance. Exterior paint and minor repair jobs such as fixing broken windows, adding wheelchair ramps, landscaping or sidewalk repair enable Habitat to serve more families, preserve neighborhood continuity, engage more volunteers and welcome new donors who may not be able to support a building project “from scratch.”

Weatherization projects—an emerging category of tasks ranging from retrofitting existing houses with sealant and insulation to installing higher-efficiency appliances—benefit communities by reducing the carrying costs of homeownership and lessening low-income homeowners’ vulnerability to increases in fuel prices. In these respects, Habitat in the United States is moving closer to the well-established international practice of looking at effectiveness in terms of families served, rather than houses built.

Community Development Block Grant monies are only one of several ways to fund such efforts to preserve communities. The economic stimulus package approved in late 2008 by the federal government included funds for a Neighborhood Stabilization Program, the first round of which resulted in Habitat affiliates procuring more than $77 million for community housing solutions. The second round of the program, which evolved during the spring and summer of 2009, could see Habitat for Humanity affiliates awarded as much as $200 million to purchase, rehab and resell foreclosed properties to Habitat families across the country. Affiliates able to leverage the funds in their communities would have especially strong applications.

However, there is more to the rehab and repair initiatives than simply chasing the money. “A lot of affiliates are looking at rehabs apart from NSP funds simply because it’s the right thing to do,” Andrews says. “They’re recognizing they need to view community housing needs more holistically to have an even greater impact. We are encouraging affiliates to approach their community development work with a wide range of tools from A Brush With Kindness to weatherization, rehabilitation of existing homes and the new home construction we are all familiar with.”

Breaking down walls, bringing in funds



Volunteers repaired existing homes during the Carter Work Project in 2003 in Anniston, Alabama.


At the heart of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” green-building ethic is the idea of reusing materials or goods, a concept that has been applied to Habitat’s work with income-generating effects. Strangely enough, Habitat affiliates throughout the United States have found they can raise money for affordable housing by taking houses apart.

Austin Habitat for Humanity, one of the first affiliates to experiment with deconstructing buildings, is one of a handful of affiliates that dismantles buildings entirely, salvaging up to 80 percent of the structure. “When we first started our deconstruction program, it came out of a reaction to the people in the city of Austin,” says Bill Bowman, deconstruction manager at Austin Habitat. “We already had a ReStore, and the ReStore would often get a lot of calls like, ‘Can you come pick up our kitchen cabinets?’ We’d say, ‘Sure, just leave them outside on the porch or in the garage, and we’ll pick them up,’ and they’d say, ‘Well, actually, we need you to take them out.’”

Habitat for Humanity ReStores, which are retail establishments created by Habitat affiliates, have three main purposes: to provide additional funding to support the affiliate’s house-building goals; to expand the affiliate’s opportunities to serve a broader base in the community by providing low-cost housing products; and to divert construction and household materials from landfills to protect the environment. Most ReStores focus on selling donated items related to housing and construction, which can vary from furniture and appliances to building supplies such as paint and flooring; about 100 ReStores are willing to remove specific items from a building. Of these, fewer than a dozen dismantle buildings completely.

ReStores provide a ready-made outlet for materials acquired through deconstruction—usually items such as cabinets, doors, trim, appliances and fixtures. “It works if you have a market for it, and there’s always a market for materials in decent shape and reusable,” Bowman says. “Some landfills have stuff they put out for sale through their local city or county because they recognize they can be reused. … Most of our clients that come into our ReStores are lower income, and these are materials they wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. Neighbors are helping neighbors.”

In Saginaw, Mich., hard economic times have taken a toll on the housing stock as well as vulnerable portions of the general population. Saginaw Habitat for Humanity has partnered with the city of Saginaw to deconstruct some of the 900 houses there slated for demolition, offering jobs to people emerging from homelessness and the local prison system.

“We were looking to improve our capacity to handle and sell items that could enable low-income families to improve their homes, or landlords to improve homes, and help Habitat make some income,” executive director Paul Warriner says. “It’s been encouraging the amount of energy our formerly homeless people and people coming out of the prison system are showing at this stage in the game. We have issues here in Michigan, and if you can reduce some the cost of rehabbing people and replace jobs people may have lost, it’s all beneficial.”

Deconstruction and resell, repairs, renovations, new construction—Habitat’s spectrum of housing solutions is intimately tied to the mission of creating decent houses in decent communities. In the process of pursuing that vision, Habitat is demonstrating that improving a community resource as foundational as housing also means lifting up employment opportunities, environmental awareness and other social values as well.

“Our new focus on providing a variety of housing services throughout specific communities is giving Habitat for Humanity an opportunity to have a tremendous impact on affordable housing in the U.S.,” says Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International. “We will continue to build houses where needed, but we can also move from building houses to transforming communities.”