Habitat for Humanity and urban issues -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Habitat for Humanity and urban issues

By Karan Kennedy

According to a 2007 United Nations report on the State of the World Population, in 2008, “for the first time in history, more than half the human population, 3.3 billion people, will be living in urban areas.” This urban growth is taking place on an “unprecedented scale” in the developing world, and “by 2030, the towns and cities of the developing world will make up 81 per cent of urban humanity.”[1]

This increase will be primarily the result of urban migration rather than through an increase in birth rate. Many of these new urban dwellers will be poor and will settle in slums as their only recourse. A 2003 UN-Habitat global report on human settlements, The Challenge of the Slums, predicts that “in the next 30 years, the global number of slum dwellers will increase to about 2 billion, if no firm and concrete action is taken.”[2]

Forty years ago, in October 1968, Clarence Jordan wrote to supporters of Koinonia Farm about a bold, new plan of Christian ministry, based on partnership — partnership industries, partnership farming and partnership housing. From the beginning, a primary concern of Jordan was the deprivations of the urban ghetto. His assumption was that providing decent housing along with jobs in rural areas would stem the migration to the cities: “People don’t move to the city,” wrote Jordan, “unless life in the country has become intolerable or impossible. They do not voluntarily choose the degrading life in the big city slums; it is forced upon them. If land in the country is made available to them on which to build a decent house, and if they can get jobs nearby to support their families, they’ll stay put.”[3]

Jordan’s conclusions were logical and not out of the main stream of thinking at the time, but the forces that have driven the growth of large, sprawling cities with their accompanying slums turned out to be even more complex than the yearnings of the human heart. The interventions of any one movement or organization could not possibly have an impact on the massive changes at work in the last quarter of the 20th century.

In 1976, when Habitat for Humanity International was first incorporated, the world population was 3.5 billion people. Just twenty years later, it was at 6 billion. Couple this population explosion with the rapid urbanization of developing countries and the result is a complex situation that even the most innovative urban planners are unable to stay ahead of. The Challenge of Slums reports that in 1950 only 18 percent of the population in developing countries was urban. In 2000 the proportion was 40 percent, but in 2030 “the developing world is predicted to be 56 percent urban.”[4]

What does this mean for Habitat for Humanity in the 21st century?
From its beginning, Habitat for Humanity has located itself not so much on the basis of a rural or urban strategy as on who was willing and able to make it work in the community where they lived. Thus, in the United States, the first Habitat affiliate was in the city of San Antonio. As Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity International, tells the story in his book "Love in the Mortar Joints," Birdie Lytle, wife of a Presbyterian pastor and “enough energy for about three people,” was moved by the deplorable living conditions in inner-city San Antonio through her work with a food pantry. Fuller’s advice: “the determining factor is not geography or population density; it is trust in God . . .”[5]

Thus the foundation was laid for development of Habitat affiliates across the United States and eventually in countries around the world. A dedicated group of people organize themselves, develop a local committee, raise funds, select families and build together. Consequently, the Habitat urban experience is extensive in the United States. However, ironically, in the developing parts of the world where urban poverty is growing at such a fast pace, Habitat’s work has been predominantly in rural areas.

There are several reasons why Habitat’s focus in the developing world has been rural, but the primary one is land. Our first projects in Africa, Latin America and Asia required that the homeowner own the land and have clear title. In situations where this was not the case, land was granted by the village chief or the local government. Only in recent years has this restriction phased out as we changed our approach. In addition, by focusing in rural areas, Habitat was able to use local materials and technology appropriate to the culture. By combining local know-how with a good cement floor and an iron-sheet or tile roof, Habitat could build simple, decent houses and still keep the cost reasonably low. While there are always exceptions, the 30-year history of Habitat for Humanity, working outside of the United States and Canada, has been a rural housing ministry.

As the face of poverty has moved from a predominantly rural to an urban setting, world organizations have taken note and sounded the alarm. Target 11 of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals is to make “a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers” by 2020. This focus creates many opportunities to partner with other organizations; nevertheless, the obstacles are great and there is a steep learning curve for many Habitat programs.

This issue of “The Forum” explores the obstacles as well as some of the lessons learned from our experience in the United States, new approaches being explored, opportunities to work through partnerships, and lessons learned from urban initiatives in several locations around the world. In many ways, we are beginning a new phase that will change how we look in the future. The type of housing, the type of intervention and the partnerships that will emerge are yet to be realized. What has not changed is that our foundation still rests, as it did with that first affiliate in San Antonio, firmly in our trust in God.

Karan Kennedy is director of International Support at Habitat for Humanity. She has 14 years of experience with HFH in various capacities, mainly in the Africa/Middle East department.

Karan may be contacted at TheForum@habitat.org.


[1] “State of the World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth,” United Nations Population Fund. http://www.unfpa.org/swp/2007/english/introduction.html
[2] The Challenge of Slums, Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, United Nations Human Settlements Programme, Earthscan Publications Ltd, London and Sterling, VA, 2003, p. xxv.
[3] “A Personal Letter from Clarence Jordan to Friends of Koinonia,” October 21, 1968. [4] Ibid., p. xxxi.
[5] Fuller, Millard, and Diane Scott, Love in the Mortar Joints, New Win Publishing, Inc., Clinton, NJ 08809, 1980, p. 102.