Legacies -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1


By Jonathan Reckford

As Habitat for Humanity evolves to serve more families around the world, we should increasingly see our role as part of a larger community development effort, in which decent housing is built within the context of other needs such as employment, sanitation, education, healthcare and land tenure, which, like the rest, can be particularly complex.

Because they cannot afford legitimate, legal housing, millions of poor families across the globe—especially in urban settings—find themselves in unauthorized shacks on land that is not their own. Their land access is limited by complex administrative procedures and cumbersome legal frameworks, and the necessary costs are prohibitive for low-income families. Consequently, they face the daily possibility of forced removal, the hazards of living precariously on river banks, near garbage dumps and within feet of railroad tracks. These families have no claim to the land on which they live, but they constitute a vital presence in local economies and occupy a staggering amount of real estate, albeit in most cases entirely substandard.

In his book, “The Mystery of Capital,” Hernando de Soto writes, for example, that the value of fixed property held (but not legally owned) by poor people in developing and former communist countries is at least $9.3 trillion. Poor families might use this capital to improve their housing situations, but because they lack legal title to their land, they have no incentive to do so, lest they be evicted and lose any investment that was made.

During a recent trip to Habitat’s Latin America and the Caribbean region, I visited a Santo Domingo slum in the Dominican Republic. Families had built their makeshift housing out of scrap metal, plastic and wood. The entire neighborhood, called Las Latas (“The Tins”) because of all the metal roofs, was situated in a riverbed and the rivers Ozama and Isabela routinely flooded the area during heavy rains.

Their lack of access to land in safer, more stable areas forced them to settle in Las Latas. Even the “wealthier” families who occupied surrounding property on higher ground had settled there illegally.

The water source in Las Latas, supplied by two unauthorized spigots, is unfit for consumption, yet if families are too poor to afford the bottled water that is regularly trucked in and sold there—which many, I suspect, are—they have no choice but to use the other for drinking and cooking, as well as for bathing and cleaning.

Even where government policy mandates adequate public services for all, reality presents a much less promising scenario in which service providers, for a variety of reasons, refuse to install sanitation, water and other services.

Despite a lack of services, families create and maintain homes in informal settlements because these locations place them closer to jobs and necessary means of transportation.

Habitat’s focus will always be on housing, but we also want to view development in inclusive terms, in which each piece—housing included—accounts for the other. We can build a solid, safe house with a family in need of it, but if the land on which we build it is not titled to them, or if the house means the family must relocate far from school or work or an existing social network, how much, at the end of the day, have we really helped them?

Our strategic plan calls for us to seek creative opportunities to serve more families, to explore partnerships with other organizations who bring to the table their own skills and experience—all in an effort to transform communities more completely. We believe, of course, that decent housing provides the foundation on which families can thrive and plan and hope and build a better future. Secure housing, however, requires secure tenure of land as well, and neither can really be considered without the other. We want to promote access to land, but also to public services, to decent housing conditions in the fullest sense of the phrase.

I had the good fortune of visiting Ghana last year and saw firsthand the permanence that emerges when both housing and titled land come together in a single solution. I met Bernard Botwe and his wife Joanna. They, and their two children, were the first Habitat for Humanity homeowners in the country. Now, 18 years after their humble beginnings in their Habitat for Humanity home, Bernard is an administrator at a hospital and is advancing in his career—a shining example, I believe, of the difference secure tenure and decent, affordable shelter can make in the lives of families.

Throughout this issue of “The Forum,” you can read further about various land issues and how they relate to Habitat’s work around the world, including land costs, advocacy and property rights. We are transforming lives not only by building simple, decent houses, but by creating access to decent housing conditions, by offering decent housing solutions—not the least part of which is secure land tenure.

Jonathan Reckford is CEO of Habitat for Humanity International.