How do we measure what counts? -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

How do we measure what counts?

By Steven Weir

The first objective of HFHI’s current strategic plan is to exponentially increase the number of “families served.” This wording is consistent with our longstanding mission to eliminate poverty housing, but is a strategic change from the way we “count” our progress against that objective. It is in part recognition of the enormity of the task, the increasing complexity of working in urban environments and our drive to serve lower income families. Increasingly Habitat’s role is only one component of holistic community development that requires multiple interventions and players to ensure both family and community sustainability.

Mission alignment

What has not changed and what we must hold on to is our core mission:

We have chosen, as our means of manifesting God’s love, to build adequate and durable homes with those in need of shelter, carrying out the belief that safe and affordable housing is a basic human right and a fundamental component of dignity and long-term well being for every person on earth. Mission Focus of Habitat for Humanity International

Habitat’s development strategy emerged 30 years ago out of an experiment in a small farming community in rural Georgia — Koinonia Farm. It was then transplanted to a rural community in Zaire with similar results. The early years benefited by a replication strategy that focused on single family rural and suburban communities. The agrarian cultures in emerging countries around the world were fertile ground for Habitat’s simple, but powerful formula.

However, as Habitat’s support has grown into urban and peri-urban communities in more than 100 countries, the range of land tenure, legal frameworks and contextual complexity demand a corollary range of sophisticated intervention strategies to ensure affordability and broad community engagement.

Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami have radically changed the global expectations of Habitat’s supporters. How do we account for the thousands of volunteers who helped communities prepare the foundation for housing development through clearing debris and mucking out flooded homes? We know that disaster mitigation will ensure that families will not have to rebuild post-disaster. Each year 20,000 families lose their home to fires in Nepal. With improved wiring and proper kitchen design, most of these rebuilding efforts would be eliminated.

New metrics are needed to reflect the shift to a full range of family and community shelter support strategies.

Scalability: Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat, often challenged affiliates not to slip into a “lottery for Humanity” mindset that provided a few middle class houses to a few lucky families. According to the UN-Habitat global report on Human Settlements 2003, trends indicate that “in the next 30 years, the global number of slum dwellers will increase to about 2 billion, if no firm and concrete action is taken.”[1] To be consistent with our vision, we must challenge ourselves to look for ways to increasingly operate at scale.

This may mean reconceptualizing the role of a local affiliate in order to achieve greater efficiency in resource development, finance and construction management at a regional or national level. It may mean that we specialize in the specific parts of the value chain for affordable housing that are currently underdeveloped, leaving areas like lending to partner agencies that are already successfully delivering micro production loans and alternative financing in the communities where we are working. In the U.S. Gulf region, Habitat has relied on partners like the Salvation Army and Lutheran Social Services to provide application screening and ongoing family support ensuring loan-ready families who will continue to be supported through ongoing case management services. Relying on partners to share the burden allows Habitat to better focus on its core competencies.

Helping to train masons and carpenters in affordable construction methodologies, developing sustainable livelihoods for homeowner families through small business startups producing interlocking blocks and concrete tiles where there are poor quality products on the market, and providing material production opportunities for families who want to build their own home over time in a pay-as-you-go program are only a few ways that the new metrics encourage affiliates to leverage impact and assist greater numbers of families.

Urban context and complex interventions: The first homepartners in urban settings lost their employment because Habitat insisted on using the same sweat-equity requirement used in rural programs. Previous requirements that all Habitat loans be given as a mortgage disqualified many urban families with use permits, but not clear fee simple titles. Early relocation projects were barely occupied as families chose to remain in slums close to their place of employment. All of these are examples of lessons learned from Habitat’s early interventions in complex urban contexts.

The high cost of urban land has driven increased density, multi-family and mixed use development, core houses with progressive and incremental improvements, repairs and renovations along with increased focus on community-based water and sanitation management as a critical part of providing adequate healthy homes in dense urban developments.

Advocacy: Perhaps the intervention strategy with the greatest potential to improve the homes and lives of scores of families is through successfully advocating for changes to housing policy and regulatory frameworks. Issues of land tenure, gender ownership and inheritance laws, land use and urban density regulations, and access to the formal finance sector are only a few of the issues that Habitat affiliates and national organizations have worked to change. Few realize how the increase in the median house size has impacted fire safety requirements that have, in turn, impacted accompanying street design, site development and infrastructure costs. Often strict code enforcement to middle and upper class standards keeps rapidly growing informal settlements from engaging in the formal regulatory process which, in turn, leaves them ineligible for water, sanitation, garbage removal, fire response and other vital city services.

What Counts?

It has been said that we do what we count. As we consider all of the different types of interventions that are part of the “work” of eliminating poverty housing, what metrics allow us to measure our impact in a way that maintains the identity of Habitat for Humanity as an organization that “builds” and recognize these new building strategies and non-construction interventions that are also important?

The “families served” metric is an attempt to recognize construction interventions that are incremental, improve the life of a family, are affordable for a poorer target group but fall short of a new house. The definitions stipulate that these interventions must result in a “new, renovated or repaired house.”

As a result, many questions have been raised in the field as to how we will count the many non-construction interventions that have been mentioned in this article as well as in other articles in this issue of “The Forum,” including advocacy initiatives, legal literacy training in LA/C, mucking out of houses in New Orleans or training carpenters and masons.

A global task force is being set up to look at these issues and put forth recommendations for endorsement by the International Board of Directors. The task force mandate includes the following:

1. Clarify definitions for construction and non-construction interventions.

2. Develop quality standards for the different types of construction interventions.

3. Review and develop guidelines on reporting cumulative numbers.

The goal will be to complete the work and implement by the end of June 2008 for fiscal year 2009.


The success of Habitat’s first 30 years has brought both the opportunity and the responsibility to take a global leadership role in building sustainable communities. The challenge for Habitat will be to continue to demonstrate the love and teachings of Jesus by building simple, decent, affordable housing by engaging the whole community as the foundational strategy to eliminate poverty housing. Yes, we will contextualize what this looks like in communities around the world, we will engage in public policy debates and advocacy, and we will research and develop best practices through our alliances with like-minded partners, but we will retain our legitimacy through continued building.

Every family served, counted by Habitat, will be the result of improved housing conditions for that family. Let us also ensure, by the way we work, that every family served by Habitat can be “counted” on to bring transformational change to our communities.

Steven Weir is vice president of Global Program Development and Support, and interim
area vice president of HFHI’s programs in Asia/Pacific.