Surviving—and thriving—in hard times -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Surviving—and thriving—in hard times

By Stephen Seidel


In the United States, Habitat for Humanity International has launched the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative to provide a more comprehensive array of services and programs.


Katie Schwamb, an HFHI employee, works on an “A Brush with Kindness” house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.


“The most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression.” Perhaps you’ve heard about it? It’s been in all the papers.

Sustaining our work through the current recession in the United States has been especially poignant for Habitat for Humanity, since the cause of this downturn was not an oil shortage caused by foreign cartels or the painful medicine necessary to tame runaway inflation.

No, the root cause of this economic contraction was in the housing industry, with too many families buying homes with financing terms they couldn’t afford, triggering defaults, foreclosures and a meltdown in the global financial system.

It is taking a great deal of creativity to navigate successfully through this economic crisis—for households and organizations alike. Foremost among Habitat’s navigational strategies has been diversification. In much the same way a personal financial planner encourages clients to spread their investment dollars across a number of asset classes, Habitat programs across the globe have been expanding their menu of programs and services. This makes it possible for local Habitat affiliates to be more flexible and responsive in meeting the needs of the communities they serve.

In the United States, Habitat for Humanity International has launched the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. Through NRI, affiliates are receiving support to provide a more comprehensive array of services and programs:

  • Construction of new, energy-efficient homes.
  • Acquisition and rehabilitation of foreclosed and abandoned homes.
  • Critical repairs to homes currently owned and occupied by low-income families.
  • Performing exterior repair and maintenance through A Brush With Kindness.
  • Energy improvements and weatherization services.
  • Homeownership education, counseling and policy advocacy.

Through this expanded set of services, Habitat affiliates in the United States are able to tailor their programs more effectively to the needs of the communities they serve. And by maintaining and enhancing their responsiveness to their communities, Habitat affiliates have increased their prospects for surviving these trying times.

It is essential for Habitat to step up in this way, since the housing conditions of so many communities have taken a severe hit during this economic downturn. Many cities and towns are hurting, and the pain has spread beyond the foreclosure crisis. Unemployment is high; elementary and secondary schools are struggling; and municipalities have to devise new solutions to meet the demands on their public safety, social service and infrastructure systems.

To respond to this extensive set of challenges, the generous support of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans is helping a couple of Habitat affiliates take on an even more ambitious agenda. For the past two years, Habitat affiliates in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Des Moines, Iowa, have been participating in coalitions consisting of more than a dozen community-based organizations.

The Thrivent Builds Neighborhoods program is investing $1 million in each of these communities to facilitate the implementation of comprehensive plans to stabilize selected neighborhoods in each city. These plans integrate a range of housing initiatives, job training and youth programs, and other social service initiatives into coordinated, strategic efforts to fulfill communities’ visions for the future.

This sort of long-range planning and coordination among multiple community-based organizations is a vital ingredient to enhancing the sustainability of communities hit hard by the recession, and Milwaukee and Des Moines are demonstrating the effectiveness of the approach. Each dollar from Thrivent Builds Neighborhoods invested in these communities is leveraging an additional $20 from other private and public sources.

The lessons learned from the Thrivent Builds Neighborhoods experiences in Milwaukee and Des Moines are informing the plans taking shape for the broader Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. The strategies of NRI are to:

  • Expand the range of programs and services provided by Habitat affiliates.
  • Align affiliate activities with the efforts of other community-based organizations to achieve a community’s vision.
  • Incorporate a rigorous monitoring and evaluation component to track the effectiveness of these plans.

HFHI has contracted with the Success Measures program of NeighborWorks USA to assess the extent to which the aspirations of the community are being reached. Staff members from HFHI’s Global Programs Division and the U.S. area office are being trained to support each NRI affiliate to implement the Success Measures evaluation system—the most extensive commitment to outcome evaluation in Habitat’s history.

More than 160 U.S. affiliates have submitted letters of interest in being part of Habitat’s NRI program. Also, these strategies have formed the basis of successful funding appeals to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Citi Foundation and the Wells Fargo Housing Foundation.

Although the U.S. economic recovery is under way, conditions will remain challenging for some time. But by expanding their menu of services, collaborating with other organizations to align their efforts to fulfill the community’s vision and rigorously evaluating the impact of their efforts, Habitat affiliates in the United States stand a far better chance of sustaining themselves—and helping their communities achieve greater sustainability in the process.

Stephen Seidel is HFHI’s senior director of global program design and implementation.