From building houses to building livelihoods: how housing can and should reduce vulnerability -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

From building houses to building livelihoods: how housing can and should reduce vulnerability

By Chris Little

When I started working in Habitat for Humanity, in Barahona, the Dominican Republic, we discouraged families from using their houses for small businesses. The conventional wisdom in Habitat then was that the family required the whole house for living. If a living room was used as a small shop or a bedroom was converted into a small shoe factory, then the living space would be inadequate, and the house could not be considered “decent” by the organization’s standards.

As you might imagine, the people we worked with did not understand the rule. They knew, much better than we did, how to use that house to improve their livelihoods. They knew that what housing is (walls, roof, a certain number of bedrooms), is not as significant as what housing does, to paraphrase John Turner. There was no question that they wanted a decent place to live, but to turn it to their full advantage, this place would also help them to deal with one of their key vulnerabilities—the lack of stable income. This house could provide both if they had the freedom to use it that way. So, despite our prohibitions, they turned living rooms into shops and bedrooms into shoe factories.

The livelihood model helps us to understand this broader perspective on our shelter work and to build that perspective into the way we design and carry out our programs. The Sustainable Livelihoods Framework (see diagram) provides a systematic approach for looking at the factors that affect people and their options. We use it to see the connections between people’s assets, their vulnerabilities, and their choices for how they will pursue a livelihood.

By considering how these elements interact, we can be strategic in determining how to intervene—how does our program help people to contend with their vulnerabilities and how does it increase the options available to them as they struggle to make a life for themselves?

Assets are at the core of the framework. The above example, using a home as a way to generate income, demonstrates how a physical asset—a house -- can also be a financial asset—an opportunity for income generation. But the livelihoods model also considers intangible assets, such as social assets—relationships, networks, political voice—or human assets, such as skills, capabilities and health.

Habitat’s traditional emphasis on self-help building, and building in organized community groups, was designed to build some of these less tangible assets. For certain vulnerable groups, the skills they build in acquiring shelter—from learning how to organize a project, to learning how to negotiate with the municipal government to secure basic services -- can lead to outcomes just as significant as the house itself.

The framework also helps us to see and understand the connection between assets and vulnerability. Assets are not permanent. They are created and destroyed by the stresses and shocks to which people are exposed—thinks like disasters, the loss of a job, persistent discrimination or threat of eviction.

Understanding the connection between assets and vulnerabilities can help us make better choices about our own programs, looking for ways to ensure that our work improves people’s ability to cope with vulnerability and increases their options.

Chris Little is director of International Learning and Development.