Habitat Poland: Housing solutions in action
Since 1992, Habitat Poland has helped more than 1,500 families directly through new construction and renovation projects. Habitat also has innovated to assist renters, make loans more available to improve multifamily dwellings and introduce energy efficiency measures.
In recent years, Habitat Poland also has worked to become a leading voice and force in advocating for decent, affordable shelter through policy. When Habitat Poland became involved in a national housing revitalization program, they realized that some 240,000 families were at risk of being displaced. Participating in Habitat’s Solid Ground global advocacy campaign, Habitat Poland pushed for legal measures so that the families could stay put.
Three decades ago, Rhonda and Adam Król came across a magazine article about an organization called Habitat for Humanity. They themselves had inherited a home but knew many families struggling to find decent, affordable housing. The Króls sent a letter across the Atlantic inquiring about starting a Habitat in Poland. “To be able to build so many houses and see so many families move into those homes and develop — that kind of privilege is indescribable,” Rhonda Król says.
“Habitat’s mission all over the world is to provide decent and affordable housing,” says Magda Ruszkowska-Cieślak, Habitat Poland’s national director. “Here in Poland, there are so many different needs that there is no one solution.”
Even with all that is being accomplished, there is still so much more to do. The housing crisis in Poland is among the most dire of the European Union countries. It starts with a severe shortage of decent, affordable places to live. Today, some 18 million Poles — 40 percent of the population — live in overcrowded dwellings. An estimated 15 percent live in substandard places, many without a bathroom or central heat.
Families have few options to better their situations. Six in 10 can’t afford a mortgage. The apartments that do become available are financially out of reach for many people. “As it comes to affordable housing, the need is growing,” Ruszkowska-Cieślak says. “Unfortunately, in bigger cities, the rent is very expensive. It sometimes takes up to 60 percent, 70 percent of a monthly salary. That is just not affordable at all.” Add in the high cost of energy — the cold season in Poland runs from October to April — and many of the families are forced to choose between heat and clothes, heat and food, heat and medicine.
“We listen to our families, to the reason the system doesn’t work for them, then we try to come up with a solution.”— Magda Ruszkowska-Cieślak, Habitat Poland’s national director
This is the backdrop that has Habitat Poland responding in a number of ways. “We listen to our families, to the reason the system doesn’t work for them, then we try to come up with a solution,” Ruszkowska-Cieślak says.
One of those solutions is taking place in Constancin, a suburb of Warsaw, Poland’s sprawling capital. There, Habitat Poland helped families with credit issues build their own housing cooperative on land they purchased. Habitat Poland guided the families through legal and financial arrangements, including the process of securing a mortgage, and helped lower construction costs by engaging volunteers and obtaining in-kind donations from corporate partners. The building was finished in early 2019, and families are currently moving in.
In Warsaw proper, Habitat Poland bought and converted an unused attic of a multifamily housing unit into studio apartments. The studios serve as transitional housing for young people who have aged out of the country’s foster care system.
Regardless of what the solutions look like, they all start with a basic premise. “Housing is key,” Ruszkowska-Cieślak says. “It’s a base for a better life.”