Housing as a human right in the United States -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Housing as a human right in the United States

By Marty Kooistra

The twentieth century saw much public sector engagement in the affordable housing arena. The creation of supply through public housing units evolved into controversy as some dense neighborhoods had a rapidly declining quality of life. Vouchers to support individual capacity to rent were used to support the demand side.

The U.S. Housing Act approved by Congress in 1949 stated that there should be “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.” This goal was never met, and while some contend that significant progress was made in the intervening years, the will to achieve such a state has never coalesced.

Today all across America, increasing numbers of families are finding it difficult to find housing they can afford near their place of employment. The plague of those who find themselves homeless persists, including large numbers of families with small children. Foreclosure rates of failed sub-prime mortgages are skyrocketing. Meanwhile, some activists continue to remind us that the United States, unlike many industrialized nations, has yet to declare a guaranteed right to housing.

Context aside, HFH continues to do its work in the U.S. through its local community-based affiliates. These entities of varying size and performance collectively built or renovated approximately 4,400 houses a year for the five years preceding 2006, which ended with a new benchmark of about 5,600 new HFH homeowners, making HFH the 16th largest homebuilder in the U.S.

While several years and iterations of organizational design at HFH have swept by, some thousands more families have achieved fulfillment of a decent house. By and large the focus of the work remains: 1) How does Habitat, as a service provider, become sustainable and scale up significantly to create more housing opportunities? 2) How does Habitat, as a catalyst, cause the systems and processes to change that limit access to an affordable, durable place to live?

Debate ensues about which facet of need is the most critical to resolve to bring about individual and community transformation—is it education, healthcare, food, or job training? We, at HFH, of course, believe that housing is a basic cornerstone of transformation. More and more though, we are becoming aware of the linkages between all of the sectors and the need to be mindfully holistic in our approach. This mindfulness deepens our respect for the individual, each individual, as God’s creation, and their right to access to an ample sufficiency of resources to achieve livelihood.

What tangible signs can we point to that provide the evidence we are making progress?
Here are some examples:
1. The Thrivent Builds Neighborhood program has four Habitat affiliate locations—Baltimore, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Des Moines—working in partnership with local coalitions to develop comprehensive Neighborhood Action Plans for holistic program design. (For more information about the Thrivent Builds Neighborhood program, please refer to the article “Serving families through Thrivent Builds Neighborhoods,” which appeared in “The Forum” Volume 14:3.)
2. The U.S. leadership team has developed a focused affiliate service delivery model that moves HFHI support resources toward helping affiliate communities go deeper in their work as catalysts.
3. An education and advocacy agenda is being shaped to bring awareness to all Americans that the lack of a safe and decent place to sleep at night anywhere in the world is unacceptable.
4. New strategic alliances with professional social service providers and housing counselors to assist families become truly “buyer-ready” are breathing new life into holistic affiliate support of the community transformation.

While it seems that discussing “social justice” and “poverty alleviation” are not necessarily popular topics in political conversations, and “affordable housing” is being reframed into the more acceptable term of “workforce housing,”[1] one can sense a strengthened commitment to find innovative ways to realize our vision of a world where everyone has access to a decent place to live.

To this end, may we pray for boldness and courage!

Marty Kooistra is the senior director of Global Program Design and Implementation for HFHI. He served in various capacities with Habitat for Humanity for more than 16 years, including local affiliate leadership, field supervision and support, and headquarters program and curriculum development.

In the fall of 2004, he was a Fellow at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, where he conducted research and analysis positioning Habitat for Humanity in the context of affordable housing initiatives and, with Professor Jane Wei-Skillern of the Harvard Business School, analyzed the role of networks in multi-site non-profits. He holds a bachelor’s degree in social work from Dordt College.


[1] According to Wikipedia, “’workforce housing,’ is a relatively new term that is increasingly popular among planners, government administrators and housing activists, and is gaining cachet with home builders, developers and lenders. "Workforce housing" can refer to almost any housing, but always refers to "affordable housing". "Workforce housing" is defined by four principal factors: affordability, home ownership, critical workforce and proximity.” For more information, please see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workforce_housing