Habitat for Humanity’s work in urban settings in the United States -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Habitat for Humanity’s work in urban settings in the United States

By Stephen Seidel

Since Habitat for Humanity’s inception more than 30 years ago, affiliates have been operating in urban areas throughout the United States. Indeed, some of the largest and most successful affiliates in the country are serving urban and metropolitan communities. Examples include Jacksonville and Miami (Florida), Atlanta (Georgia), Charlotte (North Carolina), Houston and Dallas (Texas), Twin Cities (Minnesota), Milwaukee (Wisconsin), Denver (Colorado), Nashville (Tennessee), and Phoenix (Arizona). Nevertheless, the performance of Habitat affiliates in urban areas over the years has lagged, in relative terms, the output of Habitat affiliates in mid-sized cities and smaller, more rural areas.

To address this issue, HFHI’s U.S. area office embarked on an Urban Strategies Initiative in 2001. Through this effort, led by the St. Paul-based Wilder Foundation, HFHI studied the performance of the most productive urban affiliates.

This led to the identification of seven factors critical to the success of Habitat affiliates operating in urban areas:

  • Building capacity and infrastructure for urban success: assuring that the affiliate is operating successfully as a business and is receiving appropriate governance and leadership from its board of directors.
  • Achieving production scale through partnership and innovation: an affiliate attains a notable level of production which establishes the affiliate as a meaningful force in the affordable housing movement in its community.
  • Advocating for affordable housing and community transformation: affiliate recognizes and participates in the public policy matters that affect affordable housing.
  • Embracing diversity and inclusiveness: affiliate acknowledges and celebrates the diversity of its service areas, and reaches out to all sectors of the community to carry out its work.
  • Advancing family partnerships: affiliate pays attention to and implements measures which help to ensure the long-term success of its partner families.
  • Building on volunteer experience: affiliate creates a high quality experience for volunteers that will keep volunteers coming back for more.
  • Tapping the urban resource base: affiliate balances creativity with financial prudence in accessing the wide range of resources available to affiliates operating in urban settings.

In recent years, urban affiliates in the United States have pursued initiatives based on these success factors to bolster their work. Many urban affiliates have adopted new strategic plans that call for bolder and more aggressive production plans. Increasingly, urban affiliates are collaborating with other housing developers to create larger scale, mixed income communities.

A growing number of affiliates are joining coalitions of other organizations concerned about the affordable housing crisis in their communities and are lending their voice in support of policies that affect the broader affordable housing movement. And more and more urban affiliates are tending to the quality of the volunteer experience they provide and are increasing their engagement of young people, helping to instill the habit of volunteerism and community service in the next generation.

Still, the challenges of producing affordable housing in urban and metropolitan areas are considerable. In part, this is due to the persistently fluid and evolving attributes of metropolitan areas in the United States. Going beyond the simplistic urban/rural paradigm, Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution, has designed a more layered and nuanced depiction of the composition of metropolitan areas.

In this model, the “Metro City,” or the older urban core, is often the downtown section of the metro area, where intense extremes between substantial wealth and debilitating poverty can be found. Surrounding the Metro City are relatively old suburban areas (“First Suburbs”); fully developed second-ring suburbs (“Mature Suburbs”); rapidly developing, further-flung areas (“Exurbs”); smaller, once-independent free-standing cities (“Small Metros”); and agricultural or undeveloped areas (“Rural”).

In the United States, many urban affiliates’ service areas encompass most or all of these types of communities, which adds tremendous complexity to the style and economics of affordable housing production that the affiliate must master. In other areas, however, multiple affiliates are operating in these metropolitan areas which increases the incidence of competition and conflict among affiliates operating in the same “market.” And as Americans’ desire for more space persists, as most demographers predict, the challenge of characterizing whether a community is urban or something other than urban will continue.

In the future, the affiliates that will be most successful will be those that can adapt their strategies to the ever-evolving characteristics of the settings in which they operate. At the same time, successful affiliates will keep their grounding in the core aspects of the Habitat program: effectively partnering with low-income families, mobilizing the active engagement of the entire community, and presenting the works as a powerful demonstration of God’s presence in our lives. These core principles apply no matter where a Habitat affiliate works — urban, rural and everything in between.

Stephen Seidel is currently director of Field Operations-Thrivent, State Support Organizations for HFHI. He has been actively engaged in the work of Habitat for Humanity for more than 20 years, starting as a volunteer with Twin Cities Habitat in 1987, and then serving as that affiliate’s executive director from 1989 to 2004. In 2004, he joined HFHI’s U.S. Area Office as director of Urban Programs, and in 2007 was named director of Field Operations for Thrivent and State Support Organizations.

Stephen is active in other affordable housing organizations, including serving on the Board of Twin Cities LISC, chairing the Housing Minnesota Campaign Steering Committee, and serving as a member of the Twin Cities United Way’s Housing Connections Initiative and the St. Paul Housing Action Plan Task Force.

He may be contacted at sseidel@habitat.org.