More than houses in Latin America -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

More than houses in Latin America

By Eric Solera Mata


Women work together in the Asociación de Bordadoras de Varjada.


At a housing forum in Costa Rica several years ago, one of the panelists stated, “There was a moment in which we realized that the more houses we build, the more problems we cause.”

The most astonishing part of that statement was that it was made by the president of one of the highest-profile NGOs in Costa Rica, recognized for its success in working for access to adequate housing. What problems could he be referring to?

I anticipated the answer that was later confirmed. The problems did not have to do with technical issues, construction or the quality of housing materials. All these aspects have been well-executed by the organization.

He was referring to the problems that arise from housing projects that focus on the technical and financial aspects but ignore the social dynamics that are influenced by these interventions. These dynamics might include internal conflict, violence, passivity, physical deterioration of the neighborhood, housing impoverishment, and a high resident turnover.

These are problems that, as a whole, can substantially affect the functionality of a well-designed housing solution.

“Habitation” is more than a construction methodology. It involves the human and social act of inhabiting: a human being committed in an integral way to his or her identity, relationships, world views, organization and survival. As the philosopher Martin Heidegger put it, “We build because we inhabit; we do not inhabit because we build.”

The habitat is the system that makes life possible—more than a series of objects arranged within a space.

Of course, this reflection does not imply that a housing organization should resolve every problem in a community. It does suggest, however, that the manner in which an organization implements a housing program should result in a socially stronger community.

Housing interventions should seek to improve relationships between neighbors, advance knowledge and stimulate the responsible, empowered participation of residents. Housing interventions should help to make feasible connections with outside actors in the housing sector, inspire a commitment to defend the human right to adequate housing, strengthen a sense of societal belonging and promote a shared vision of the future.

These suggestions are not only a question of principles, but also the range, impact and social sustainability of the housing interventions we produce.

What do we mean by “social sustainability”? Let’s look at some examples.

At the completion of eight housing projects in Costa Rica that were carried out with low-income sectors that had received government housing subsidies, four of the projects were deemed successful and four unsuccessful. “Success” was defined by the level of establishment of inhabitants, the grade of satisfaction on the part of the families, proper home maintenance, and improvements made to the houses and community infrastructure once the project had ended.

Appealing to the statistical methods, the study demonstrated that the most successful projects were those with better community organization and more family participation in the different phases of the project—not only in construction. Those projects showed better establishment, better relationships, a higher level of satisfaction, and infrastructure that was well-maintained and continually improved on the initiative of the residents themselves.

No organization, nongovernmental or otherwise, can sustain itself and multiply the reach of its impact for long without community leadership.

The Varjada project in Brazil is an example of Habitat for Humanity’s success at this process. Involving the community leaders in decision-making revealed that, despite other suggested priorities, drinkable water was the most urgent communal need. Moreover, the community as a whole understood that clean water was significant not only for individual quality of life, but also for the women who invested many hours gathering water from long distances.

Once the water issue was addressed, women began to invest time in other activities, such as the production and sale of handmade crafts. This in turn allowed community members to increase their income to improve the quality of their housing, develop professionally and generate a higher self-esteem.

Furthermore, through the marketing of their handmade goods, women in the community organized into an association through which they contribute to the overall improvement and development of the community.

Another example is found in Habitat for Humanity Chile’s work with indigenous Mapuche groups in the Bio-Bio (Araucania) region. The most fundamental challenges of indigenous groups who have emigrated to urban areas are the design, space and distribution of homes and the residents’ adaptation to these urban housing conditions. For example, positioning the windows in relation to the sunrise and sunset is one thing that must be taken into consideration when building the homes, so the Mapuche people will more easily identify with the new housing conditions.

Another challenge faced by Habitat Chile was the integration of newcomers into an existing community. New neighbors, especially if they come from marginalized areas, are often looked down upon. Cases like these—in which the gap is wide because of ethno-cultural reasons, prejudice and prior conflict—can increase the risk of well-intentioned housing interventions, leading to unhealthy relationships within the community. The social and economic integration of any newcomer would be affected.

For this reason, Habitat Chile created opportunities for residents to meet the new families to build mutual recognition and form ties of cooperation. During this process, both the residents and new neighbors were able to participate in and appreciate diverse traditional cultures, foods and dances.

The construction designs in these projects coexist in harmony with the existing homes. Thus, the community does not perceive its housing as out of context, contributing to the social sustainability of the project.

A home is not a solution if it does not include a sustainable approach through human and social dynamics. The intervention goes beyond building a house and then living in it. Our housing projects must focus on the relationship between constructing a house and living in a household. It can be the difference between a house and a home.

Eric Solera Mata is Habitat’s project manager for community development in Latin America.