Legal Literacy -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Legal Literacy

By Ana Cutts

In its mission to serve families in need of decent housing, Habitat for Humanity Argentina has experienced several obstacles. The first is the fact that 95 percent of the individuals who applied for Habitat homes in Argentina were not legal owners of their land. Therefore, the individuals were unable to participate in the Habitat Argentina program, which required title deeds for the mortgage.

The subsequent Lands Project, whereby Habitat Argentina provided loans for home and land purchases, also experienced difficulties. Ninety-five percent of the vacant plots in these low-income areas were only transferable on the informal market, because, again there was no legal title for the land. It became clear that as Habitat Argentina sought to help poor families rise out of the conditions of poverty housing and to move in the direction of sustainable development, some families were being left behind. The complex bureaucratic system involved in obtaining land titles, and the presence of predatory lenders taking advantage of uninformed borrowers, put several poor families at risk of losing the land and/or the home that they had worked so hard to earn. From this situation, we learned that to reduce poverty housing it is just as important to prevent the downward trend as it is to encourage upward development.

Habitat Argentina’s Legal Literacy Program is an educational and awareness building program aimed at providing low-income communities with basic knowledge of procedures, rights, dangers and opportunities in the process of applying for loans and purchasing homes. The aim is to equip families with the knowledge of how to prevent losing their land and/or house due to predatory lenders. In Argentina, several loan transactions require property as a form of collateral. Many families lose their properties due to the lack of payment by friends or relations who have used their property as collateral. Habitat for Humanity is limited in its ability to serve 95 percent of those families applying because they do not have legal deeds to their land. Successive laws have provided discounts or exemptions for taxes and payments required to legalize the land, but the large majority of families qualifying for these benefits are either unaware of their existence, or daunted by the seemingly complicated procedures.

With a grant from Habitat University, and learning from the successful application of the Citibank project of Financial Literacy, Habitat Argentina has contracted two lawyers to produce a manual and a course of Legal Literacy. Following initial research into the laws, exemptions, procedures, drawbacks and possibilities surrounding land rights and loans, the professionals are in the process of producing an attractive, simple guidebook. Subsequently the project involves the training of volunteers in the affiliates and other NGOs offering to spread the course to as many families as possible. Along with this, Habitat Argentina also provides the participants of the courses with a folder with the same design as the Manual for "Important Documents" to encourage families living in poverty housing to value and protect things such as title deeds, medical reports and documents. The successful courses already being provided by Habitat Argentina as part of its “more than houses” approach, has prompted the municipalities in the areas where we are working to request that the training be open to the entire community–an outreach that Habitat Argentina welcomes with open arms.

The final stage of this pilot project involves a report on lessons learned, recommendations and tools available to other Habitat programs around the world wishing to add this dimension to their mission to eliminate poverty housing.

Ana Cutts is the national director of Habitat for Humanity Argentina.

Contact Celina Malvazo at cmalvazo@hpha.org.ar for more information.