Expanding the reach of families served in the U.S. -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Expanding the reach of families served in the U.S.

By Susan Dunn-Lisuzzo

“Scaling up,” “building capacity,” “increasing the number of families served,” are phases heard repeatedly in the halls of Habitat for Humanity International offices around the Unites States. The concepts can be easily explained to the unfamiliar—that’s the easy part. The difficulty, as always, is in executing the concepts and measuring success toward our goals.

Historically, HFHI in the United States has gathered house production and tithe contribution data to measure affiliate success. Clearly these items are indicators of activity, but do these numbers tell the whole story regarding Habitat’s work across the county? We build houses, yes, but Habitat for Humanity is not a construction company churning out dwellings for anonymous families. We build families and communities, which requires expending resources and acquiring expertise that far exceeds construction skills.

Measuring “families served,” which HFHI’s 2007-2011 strategic plan calls for us to do, is a paradigm shift for us. Serving families represents a much broader category of activity, and it is much more complex trying to measure activity that does not result in a new home or a mortgage. To meaningfully do so will require a more sophisticated approach to our work. It will take time to develop the nuances of the reporting process and how to do so is a topic of discussion among U.S. leadership.

Below are activities through which U.S. affiliates currently serve families, some of which would be reportable under the July 1, 2005, HFHI Statistical Guidelines: Houses Built and Families Served[1], but all are important to our mission nonetheless:

Families served through repairs

The number of U.S. families served through repairs continues to increase annually. In 2004, 914 repairs were reported by U.S. affiliates; in 2005, 959; and in 2006, over 1200 were reported. Offering low-income homeowners, who are unable due to severe cost-burden to afford professional contractors, this alternative allows additional families to maintain access to adequate housing.

A small percentage of U.S. affiliates manage a repair program as part of their affiliate offerings. One program example is A Brush with Kindness, started by the Twin Cities HFH, Minnesota, “a neighborhood outreach program in which volunteers paint, landscape and provide minor repairs to the exterior of homes for low-income residents — at no cost to the homeowner.[2]”

Gulf Coast Home Repair program, facilitated by HFHI’s Disaster Response Office

(DRO) and the Church World Service Emergency Response Program (CWS ERP), epitomizes serving families through partnership and leveraging the fundamental strengths of each. “Serving in this catalyst role, HFHI will provide funding support in the amount of $4,042,000 over the two-year program for home repair initiatives implemented by local Long Term Recovery Committees (LTRCs) and Church World Service member organizations… and [this program] is integrated into the greater scope of Habitat’s reconstruction efforts through Operation Home Delivery.[3]”

Families served through education

Homeowner education is a critical component of a partner family’s success. Many partners are the first in their extended family to own a home and shifting from a renter to an owner requires learning a new set of skills. According to a recent survey conducted by HFHI’s U.S. Office, 92 percent of the 405 affiliate respondents indicated that family services is extremely or moderately important to their ability to serve an increasing number of families annually. Eight-nine percent agree that there is a general lack of understanding regarding the amount of family services work required in Habitat.

As part of their family services offerings, Nashville Area HFH, Tennessee, created HomeWORKS, “a collection of classes designed to teach new skills and encourage new habits. From financial management and budgeting to home maintenance and repair, our goal is to equip individuals and families to become more self-sufficient …[4]” Tools that are vitally important to long-term success of partner families.

It is one thing to prepare families for homeownership, but it is yet another to help them remain homeowners. A very real threat to low-income homeowners in the United States is predatory lenders who aggressively target families with refinancing offers. Naturally, the refinanced mortgage includes interest, which exponentially increases the monthly payments and leaves a family vulnerable to losing their home. HFHI has prepared a series of tools for affiliates on these issues, and, we’ve found, affiliates need to remain vigilant in preparing partner families in this area.

Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity’s “Mortgage Foreclosure Prevention Program provides counseling, advocacy, referrals and occasional financial assistance to families who have fallen behind with their mortgage payments.[5]” Through this program, families set a course to resolve a financial mis-step that could result in losing their home. Program staff will also work with outside lenders, when the family served is not a Habitat partner.

Families served through referral and partnership

The very act of qualifying a family for Habitat homeownership is a process which utilizes affiliate time and resources.

Southern Crescent HFH in Jonesboro, Georgia, created a tool that allows local community members to anonymously complete an online form to determine program eligibility. “Our past experience had shown that most people didn’t qualify [for a Habitat home] because of excess debt,” explains Brenda Rayburn, executive director. “After a potential applicant inputs their data, they get either a ‘Good news: You meet the income qualifications. Please attend our workshop’ message or a message that says ‘We have good news and bad news based on the data you provided. The bad news is that you currently have too much debt to qualify, but the good news is that you can fix it,’” adds Rayburn. “Then we provide links to consumer credit counseling.[6]”

Increasingly, Habitat is seeking partnerships with other nongovernmental agencies to effectively administer programs. Again, leveraging the strengths of each partner to create a mutually beneficial relationship; the ultimate beneficiaries are the families served.

One such partnership originated after the 2006 hurricanes in the Gulf Coast of the United States: The Lutheran Social Services of the South (LSSS)/Habitat Family Support Call Center located in Austin, Texas and operated by the Lutheran Social Services Disaster Response, Inc. According to Mike Weston, family development manager, HFHI, “The call center employs a director and seven qualified, and very capable, case managers…and primarily focuses on pre-selection screening of hurricane-affected families interested in a Habitat homeownership opportunity.”

“The Call Center, Weston says, “does not simply limit services to the Habitat selection process but has accomplished the following:”

  • 194 families have been referred to alternative housing solutions
  • 145 families have been referred to other agencies to address immediate need
  • 76 families have received referrals to other Katrina Aid Today programs
  • 51 families have also been referred to other LSSS based programs
  • Nearly all families who are deemed not yet ready for homeownership are encouraged to participate in credit counseling opportunities and/or income building skills

As we continue to grapple with how best to measure the impact of Habitat in the United States, and our progress toward the goal of serving more families annually, the work of serving families continues daily through the hard work, creative ideas and partnership of HFHI, local affiliates and nongovernmental agencies. The work continues and will continue until every family has a decent place to call home.

Susan Dunn-Lisuzzo is national communications manager at HFHI.


[1] HFHI Statistical Guidelines: Houses Built and Families Served: http://partnernet.habitat.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/manuals/pnetdoc029251.pdf

[2] Twin Cities HFH (Minn.) Web site: http://www.tchabitat.org/content/category/6/33/28/

[3] Creme, Meredith, HFHI and Church World Service expand their partnership in the Gulf, pg. 5-6, The Affiliate Update, 2nd Qtr 2007.

[4] Nashville Area HFH (Tenn.) Web site: http://www.habitatnashville.org/homeworks/index.php

[5] Ibid

[6] Willard, Dani, Is an applicant qualification Web site right for your affiliate?, pg. 10-11, The Affiliate Update, 2nd Qtr 2007.