Habitat for Humanity and housing rights -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Habitat for Humanity and housing rights

By Steven Weir
I used to be a man without a permanent address. When I saw abuse and corruption at the school where I teach, I did not dare speak out for fear of being transferred to a remote part of the country where I could not care for my family. With this house, my family and I have a permanent address. We will never live in fear of speaking out again.

In 1823, my forefather’s family was forcibly relocated from southern India to Sri Lanka to work as laborers on the tea estates. After generations of savings, my grandfather purchased this small plot of land (approx. 5m x 10m), but our family did not have the money to build a home and move out of the inhuman living conditions of company line housing. As a teacher I should qualify for a government loan, but as a low caste person, my application has never been processed. We have been refused help by the bank, our local temple, the school district and the government—we had nowhere to turn. Habitat for Humanity Hatton’s assistance has changed the life of my family forever. We are now, a family with a permanent address, and I will never be afraid to speak out again. —Mr. S. Durairaj at the dedication of his family’s new house in April, 1995.

Housing as the basis for human rights development

Transformational community development is central to broad-based human rights development, and secure housing is the cornerstone for a family’s participation in that process. The UN Fact Sheet on The Right of Adequate Housing expresses the connection and the scale of the need in this way: “Adequate housing is universally viewed as one of the most basic human needs. [emphasis added] The United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) named Housing as an integral part of the right to an adequate standard of living.

A fact sheet from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) adds that since the original 1948 declaration, “No less than 12 different texts adopted and proclaimed by the UN explicitly recognize the right to adequate housing. Interestingly, of these treaties the United States has ratified only one—the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.” [1]

Housing as a moral imperative—Habitat for Humanity’s response

In 1996 at the UN Habitat II conference, leaders from 171 nations met in Istanbul to reaffirm and review the progress made on the right to housing. Habitat for Humanity founder, Millard Fuller, has on many occasions stated Habitat for Humanity’s concurrence with the UN call to action stating, “Habitat for Humanity believes that it is politically, socially, morally and religiously unacceptable for people to live in substandard housing.”[2] As a plenary speaker at Istanbul, Fuller affirmed the universal concern for housing and offered a way forward: “The task at hand—namely to assure adequate shelter and livable, sustainable communities that nurture and enhance life rather than demeaning and destroying it—is too big, too daunting to leave any potential ally standing idly on the sidelines. Every such potential ally from whatever realm, government or otherwise, should be encouraged to make the maximum contribution possible to help alleviate the suffering of our fellow human beings who are languishing in miserable living conditions. We can ill afford the luxury of leaving any of them on the sidelines of our noble struggle to provide adequate shelter for all.” [3]

It is clear from Fuller’s statements that while the legal right to adequate housing may be globally recognized, our personal and corporate obligations are broader. What is needed is the political will, or more broadly, a social contract to eliminate sub-human living conditions in each of our communities.

Habitat for Humanity’s experience is that engaging citizens in direct community participation in areas more narrowly considered economic, social and cultural rights issues, have led to a higher awareness and improvement in the community’s norms in the area of civil and political rights.

Like many international humanitarian aid organizations, Habitat’s focus on broad, holistic, transformational development leads to broad, holistic human rights improvement.

Koinonia Farm: The precursor to Habitat’s holistic community engagement strategy

In 1942, twenty years before the civil rights movement, Clarence Jordan and Martin England started an experimental farm in rural Georgia. “Its purpose was two-fold: to build a racially inclusive community in which (1) Christians would live in radical obedience to the teaching of Jesus; (2) in a way that that would help farmers – especially the poor.” [4]

During the 1950’s, Jordan was excommunicated from the Baptist church, and members of the KKK (Klu Klux Klan) sought to drive him out of the county. Koinonia Farm was boycotted, bombed and their houses riddled with bullets. Insurance was cancelled and merchants feared to do business with them. In 1968 when survival seemed in doubt, Clarence Jordan teamed up with an entrepreneurial businessman, Millard Fuller, and started a new program called Koinonia Partners through which programs like paralegal assistance, counseling, foster care, prison visitation and a “Fund for Humanity” were begun.[5]

Koinonia Farm’s radical vision of a racially integrated community predates the civil rights movement and is a clear antecedent to Habitat’s strategy of holistic community engagement as the key to transformational change. This core principle continues to shape the normative intervention framework as well as Habitat’s approach to human rights issues.

Human rights improvements

Several interesting observations on human rights improvements can be made from Mr. Durairaj’s story. Interestingly, these are seldom understood or articulated in human rights language partly because neither the motivation nor the experiences originate from a human rights agenda.

  • Motivated by faith-based obligations rather than human rights obligations, the local Habitat volunteer committee initiates a series of community improvements by helping a single family.
  • Improvement in housing, results in improvement in Mr. Durairaj’s economic and social standing in the community. Cultural discrimination is overcome when neighbors of a different caste and ethnic background volunteer to assist Mr. Durairaj through their own labor. Mr. Durairaj’s subsequent assistance to others further demonstrates the breaking down of cultural divisions. Civil and political improvements occur when a previously disenfranchised Mr. Durairaj now organizes a small minority community and successfully negotiates municipal approvals for their development project.
  • Through a participatory engagement methodology, improvements occur in the areas of economic, social, cultural, civil and political human rights
  • The personal transformation of Mr. Durairaj, and the individual participation by others in improving Mr. Duraraj’s housing conditions, result not only in holistic community development, but also in transformed community motivation. Personal engagement is often the strongest motivation for continued change.

While the improvement in Mr. Durairaj’s physical comfort and security was surely dramatic, this level of personal transformation is typically not seen in the lives of the residents of government give-away housing schemes who experience similar improvements in their human rights through improved housing conditions. An improvement in housing alone is generally insufficient to sustain the ongoing development in a community needed to affect its human rights. The plethora of failed government relocation and mass housing schemes are evidence to the unique transformation experienced by Mr. Durairaj.

Perhaps more thought provoking is the efficacy of a methodology that combines personal engagement with faith-based motivation and seems to result in a transformation far beyond the notional human rights improvement.


Habitat for Humanity supports the United Nations human rights concerns surrounding adequate and decent shelter for the poor, but believes that a rights-based approach alone is ineffective. Habitat believes that it is politically, socially, morally and religiously unacceptable for people to live in substandard housing. It is only through constructive engagement of all the constituents in the broad community that a common vision can be forged that is inclusive enough to eliminate subhuman living conditions. This vision must then be transformed into concrete action.

Housing as a single sector intervention, using participatory methodology, can serve as a catalyst for broader human rights through its role in initiating and encouraging civil society and holistic community development. This approach must be holistic in nature to be transformational.

Transformational development is critical to the reversal of the power dynamics that allow human rights abuses to continue. This transformation is a journey that must include the economic poor and non-poor, as well as the staff of the development and government agencies involved. It must include material, social and spiritual changes for the fullness of personal dignity and civil society to be developed. Both personal and community paradigm shifts are required.

We draw hope and encouragement each time we hear of a Mr. Durairaj who has not only been transformed but is now transforming his community. If we are to be successful at eliminating human rights abuses, it must start with Mr. Durairaj and his neighbors, one family and one community at a time.

Steven Weir has worked with Habitat for Humanity for 14 years, and is currently the vice president of Global Program Development and Support. He and his family moved to Sri Lanka in 1993, where he served as an International Partner for 2 years. From 1995-2007, he worked as vice president of HFH’s programs in Asia and the Pacific. Prior to this he was a Founding Board member of and active volunteer at East Bay HFH, Oakland, Ca., USA.

With a background in architecture, Weir worked for 16 years in that industry before joining HFH in 1993. Weir has published and presented several research papers on poverty housing and development issues.


Barnette, Henlee H., Jordan, Clarence, "Turning Dreams into Deeds" (Smyth Helwys Publishing Inc, 1992)
Carens, Joseph, Fiji paper
Chambers, Robert, "Whose Reality Counts?"
Intermediate Technology Publications104 Government of India, DEC evaluation report —"Shelter and the use of contractors," 2001
Fuller, Millard, "More than Houses" (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000)
Fuller, Millard, "Bokotola" (Association Press, New Century Publishers, Inc., 1977) Hiebert, Paul, "The Flaw of the Excluded Middle" (1982) Missiology 10(1)
Human Rights in Development web page [http\\www.unhchr.ch/development/right-01.html]
Lee, Dallas, "The Cotton Patch Evidence" (New York: Harper & Row, 1971)
Meyers, Bryant, "Walking with the Poor; Principles and Practices of Transformational Development" (NY: Orbis Books, Maryknoll)
Newbigin, Leslie, "Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture" (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986)
United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Fact Sheet No. 21, The Human Rights to Adequate Housing (http:/www.unhchr.ch)
Draft Community Impact Study, MTTH project sponsored by USAID in Nepal and Sri Lanka 2002
United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) Article 25.1 (http:/www.unhchr.ch)

Further Reading

Transformation occurs in an imperfect system often complicated by cultural conflicts that require compromise as INGOs seek to implement their core philosophy and vision. In “Ethics in Action, The Ethical Challenges of International Human Rights NGOs,”[6] Steven Weir has written a chapter, “Transformation as the Key to Human Rights” where he outlines several such conflicts encountered by Habitat and describes both the compromises, failures and the long-term strategies that were eventually adopted. They are broadly grouped as:

  • Discrimination and Favoritism in Home Owner Selection: human rights improvements—a vision not a reality
  • Right to Development and Cultural Governance Norms: human rights improvements in conflict with each other—choose one
  • Media, Donors and Human Rights in Complex Disasters: human rights improvement—made for TV
  • Related Human Rights Abuses: human rights improvements—the narrow view.

[1] Fuller, Millard. More than Houses, Publishing House and place of publication, pg. 285
[2] Ibid., xi
[3] Ibid., 287
[4] Henlee H. Barnette, Clarence Jordan, Turning Dreams into Deeds., vii – viii
[5] Ibid.
[6] Cambridge University Press 2007; Chapter 3