Reaching hearts and minds in Poland -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Reaching hearts and minds in Poland

By Barbora Cernusakova

During the past 15 years, the focus of Habitat for Humanity Poland was building houses with families in need to improve their living conditions. The level of need in this Eastern European country is outrageous – 6 million out of 38 million live in substandard housing conditions.

“Such a high number of people suggests the problem is a structural one,” said Dorota Binkiewicz, manager of HFH Poland’s advocacy campaign. “Although the help of HFH Poland certainly made a difference, we could not help feeling like we are a drop in the ocean.” Impassioned to change that, Binkiewicz undertook a project with an ambitious goal: to promote and help implement a sustainable national housing policy. A systematic policy at both national and local levels should address two main housing problems in Poland: lack of affordability and poor-quality, substandard housing.

Poland is a rare example in East-Central Europe: It’s a nation that recognizes the right to housing in its Constitution, thus making authorities accountable to satisfy the housing needs of the citizens. However, this right suffers from a lack of enforceability – a situation HFH Poland is now tackling.

The first step was setting up an advocacy coalition called “Roofs Over Heads.” After the first meeting in 2005, a few organizational sessions followed. NGO partners involved in housing and social inclusion issues – including SOS Children Villages, CARITAS and Barka Foundation – have started to meet regularly. HFH Poland was the leader and facilitator of the coalition-building process.

“It was during these discussions that we realized we need a strategic solution, a systematic change,” said Binkiewicz. This part of the advocacy work was not easy, she added, as the prevailing attitude among Polish NGOs is that they have to compete with each other for funding, media space and supporters.

“In the end, however, we managed to identify the common goal and see that if we work together, we will all benefit,” Binkiewicz said.

The call for a nationwide affordable housing program was soon supported by research that helped identify several housing-related issues. One of the most prominent findings was the lack of housing solutions for people who cannot afford to pay market prices for housing.

“There are whole groups within the population who will simply never be able to get a mortgage,” said Binkiewicz. “They come across as: ‘non-bankable.’ ”

These people are often doomed to life in substandard housing conditions. During her time with Habitat for Humanity, Binkiewicz has often witnessed firsthand the dreariness of their plight.

“I met several families experiencing overcrowding – a family with two children living in one room of 8 square meters [86 square feet],” Binkiewicz said. “Both of the parents were working, but they still could not afford to buy a house, and did not receive any help from the municipality either, as there are hundreds of families on the waiting lists for public rental housing.”

There are several vulnerable groups affected by the housing need in Poland, and the policies attempting to address the issue need to be tailored to the specific group.

“At the moment we are working on the identification of the vulnerable groups, such as graduates from the orphanages, elderly, single parents, etc.,” said Binkiewicz. “And we are outlining various policy solutions for each particular group.”

After the first eight months of the project, the advocacy coalition is working well. It has established contacts at the Ministry of Infrastructure, as well as at the office of the Prime Minister, secured media patrons for a public awareness campaign, and is enlisting the expertise of several housing experts.

At the same time, HFH Poland itself has already learned some hard lessons in the advocacy field.

“We started with a lot of enthusiasm, but the work was quite a bit intuitive at the beginning,” Binkiewicz said. “We felt that we should do something, but it was not always easy to see how to get ‘there.’ Progressively, we have reached a point where we just had to start being programmatic: to identify clear and measurable goals, objectives and activities that will lead us to it. “We have learned to be patient and flexible,” she said.

Barbora Cernusakova is former advocacy manager for Habitat for Humanity International in Europe and Central Asia.