A new concept of service to reach more families -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

A new concept of service to reach more families

By Manuel Mancuello

A recent survey of the housing need in the LAC region indicates that while 39 percent of the housing deficit will require new houses, the remaining 61 percent can be remedied with repairs. In several countries where the need for repair of current housing stock is greater than the need to build new houses, the LAC area is serving families that could not be reached before when programs focused on building new houses.

Increasingly, many of the new loans granted in LAC are for repairs or additions, such as a new room, with the intention of reducing over-crowding and the negative consequences it brings. In Honduras, loans are helping to improve the adobe houses in the indigenous community of Chorti, in Copan. With wall coatings and a change in the roofing materials, the chagas-bearing bug that lives in the hay of the roof or in adobe walls can be eradicated.

Nevertheless, the expansion of programs in LAC to include a variety of interventions has been approached with caution. The LAC program approach is to prioritize the financing and construction improvements that will significantly improve the well-being of families, even though there is also a demand for aesthetic changes in the house. In this sense, it is not the same thing to get a loan to put tile over cement flooring as it is to improve an old adobe wall to avoid the disease-bearing insects. The first case is more aesthetic; the second one is more significant.

Martha Hernandez, country coordinator in the Institutional Development department explains some of the challenges, “In order to understand the difficulties, we should take into account the whole operational system of Habitat was adapted to complete houses: capacities, systems, procedures, etc.”

Habitat has been historically identified by the new houses it builds. Many programs feel that providing partial solutions does not comply with the expectations of dignifying the living conditions of a family. Therefore, incremental solutions are a change in thinking about Habitat and its role in eliminating poverty housing conditions in the community.

Bernadette Cruz Zoto, program coordinator in Los Tuxtlas, Mexico, concurs, “In this corner of Mexico, we are taking some time because the community has always identified us as builders of complete houses. Just now, there are other organizations that have started to approach us asking for some advice, not only in house construction, but also for the construction of latrines, bathrooms, etc.”

“Regarding advisory and supportive services, we have really not had the chance to do anything. But, thank God, people are now starting to relate our work with diverse types of improvements,” she adds.

“In order to move in this new direction,” Hernandez continues, “We have to define or improve the mechanisms, procedures and administrative costs of micro credits, since they are different from the traditional mortgage loans for housing. Likewise, we should strengthen the relationships with those donors who are willing to finance service programs such as technical advisory services, workshops or subsidy facilitation.

“Finally, this new concept of families served also promotes alliances; thus, we can reach more people and involve other institutions that, due to their experience, location or capacity, can accomplish a greater impact,” concludes Hernandez.

In fact, many program activities that improve the quality of life of homeless families have not been “counted” in the past. “For example,” recalls Juan Ochoa, one of two administration and finance coordinators of the area office, “a university in Chile requested advice from Habitat in developing a local housing project. Even though Habitat Chile developed the housing product, because they did not actually construct the houses, the intervention was not accounted for.

“The project was for the construction of 50 houses. Habitat provided the blueprints and its experience in low-cost house construction. But, at that time, we did not have the concept of ‘families served,’” adds Alfredo Villalta, the finance manager of the area office at that time.

Another non-construction program that improves the lives of families is the financial literacy program. More than 2,000 families in more than 10 countries have had the opportunity to increase responsible management of their finances.

Likewise, Habitat Argentina has developed a legal literacy program, comprised of a cycle of workshops about the different aspects related to obtaining, legalizing and protecting property. (see “The Forum,” Volume 13:3) In Dominican Republic, there is a construction training program, and in Haiti a latrine construction program in alliance with Fonkoze, the largest microfinance organization in Haiti.

As this new role for Habitat is clarified, both internally and externally, there has been an increase in the demand for repairs, training, technical advice and housing solutions in alliance with other organizations. The door is open for more opportunities but the approach is still cautious. As Hernandez comments, “ . . . we are careful in the sense that program interventions need to significantly affect the quality of life of the family.”

Manuel Mancuello is a writer and editor with the Public Awareness department at HFH LA/C.