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'What is poverty housing?'
By Rebekah Graydon

Bhachau, India
When Stephanie Grubb of Penrose, N.C., thinks of substandard housing, several first-hand memories surface: washing out diapers in a river because there wasn’t any running water in the house; putting a 40-gallon trash can in the living room to catch rain; and waking up several times a night in the winter to stoke the smoky, wood-burning heater.

Such living conditions are representative of substandard housing around the world.

Its where the children are ashamed of the house, says Robin Shell, senior vice president of program for Habitat for Humanity International. A substandard house is where the family is always getting sick. Its where they never know when someone might come and sweep away the slums. Theyre at the mercy of the rich and powerful.

How is substandard housing defined? To an extent, that definition depends on factors such as culture and geography. Regardless of location, however, there are some common characteristics.

Braga, Portugal
Physical inadequacy of the structure: The U.S. Census Bureau defines housing units as having “severe” physical problems if, among other things, they lack hot or cold piped water, have no electricity and have holes or open cracks in the walls or ceilings. Internationally, the United Nations considers housing uninhabitable if it does not provide both adequate space and protection from threats to health, hazards and disease.

Overcrowding: For the most part, the definition of crowding depends on local culture; it is not uncommon for large extended families in some countries to share limited space. At some point, however, crowding begins to have a negative effect on the mental and physical health of the family.

Overcrowding creates a sense of anxiety and lack of privacy, says Moises Loza, executive director of the U.S.-based Housing Assistance Council. Siblings try to develop and declare their independence as they grow, and there could be a good deal of frustration for parents trying to be alone.

Cost burden: For about a year, Grubb managed to rent a house, providing a bedroom for each child, a yard, and luxuries such as a flush toilet and dishwasher. “My main priority was to show my children that there was a better life,” she says.

But in order to pay the rent she had to work 80 hours a week, and during the summer her children were home alone. Soon, the personal cost became too high, and they had to move again.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 12.3 million people in America pay more than half their incomes for housing or live in severely inadequate units. Such cost burdens anywhere in the world place housing in competition with other necessities.

Poor health: Grubb's children struggled with chronic asthma from the smoking wood-burning heater. Asthma, especially in children, and health issues associated with lead-based paint are significant and costly problems. Internationally, families in substandard housing suffer from health problems related to precarious construction, rodent- or insect-infested bush materials, damp floors and inadequate sanitation. In addition, diseases spread quickly in overcrowded conditions.

Emotional drain: Fear of unsafe surroundings and eviction, hopelessness and shame erode self-esteem and a sense of well-being.

“It’s not just the substandard housing,” Grubb says. “It’s the way it makes you feel inside. That overflows into all other areas of your life.”

Habitat has helped more than 110,000 households work their way out of substandard housing, but millions more remain.

The problem is getting worse, says Shell. Wethe international world communityarent keeping up with the population growth of the poor. ...Were not keeping up because of lack of political will. We have not yet succeeded in making it a matter of conscience.

Can the problem be solved? Without a doubt, yes. It could be this century, and it will be through programs like Habitat where ordinary citizens are empowered to do something practical and encouraged to take responsibility. It is possible to solve the problem, one community at a time.


Rebekah Graydon is Habitat World's editorial assistant.


Reprinted from Habitat World Magazine, June/July 2001.
This article may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
©2001 Habitat for Humanity International

 

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