Habitat for Humanity: A Hand Up, Not a Handout

By Deborah Winch

Although many of Ohio’s housing needs are so-called “invisible” needs, what has become increasingly evident is the fact that Ohio is experiencing a housing crisis.

                        According to Ohio’s Fiscal Year 1994 Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy (CHAS), a state document that estimates housing needs and recommends a plan to meet them 23% of all Ohio families suffer from visible housing problems-living in housing that they are unable to afford or living in substandard or overcrowded conditions.  Many of these households live paycheck to paycheck and are just one crisis away from homelessness.

            The CHAS report states that 40% of the 147,000 Ohioans who experienced a period of homelessness in 1991 (the most recent figures available) were families with children.

            Cleveland’s need for adequate housing was dramatically illustrated during a recent lottery held by the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority to issue section 8 certificates and vouchers, which entitle a family to subsidized housing assistance.

            “Last year we had a Section 8 lottery and 40,000 families applied, “according to Scott Pollack, Executive Assistance to CMHA’S chief Operating Officer.  The response to the lottery was overwhelming compared to the 1500 vouchers available.

            “The situation continues to worsen,” stated Jim Cain, Associate Director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio.  The root causes aren’t being addressed.”

            According to government housing experts, the solution to Ohio’s housing crisis lies not merely with providing shelter, but with providing shelter that is decent, affordable and not temporary.

            Eight years in Cleveland, a small group of people decided to take matters into their own hand – quite literally.  They organized the Greater Cleveland Habitat for Humanity (GCHFH), an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, the international grass-roots Christian housing ministry.

            Many people are familiar with the Habitat name because of ex-President Jimmy Carter’s highly publicized work with the organization, but what many people do not know is that Carter is not the founder of the organization.

            Lou DuChez, GCHFH’S Volunteer Coordinator, calls Carter “our best-known volunteer,” but Habitat is actually the product of a wealthy young couple’s determined effort to save their troubled marriage.

            Millard Fuller’s workaholic habits brought him wealth but nearly destroyed his marriage to his wife, Linda.  The Fullers, in an attempt to start over, gave up their lavish lifestyle, sold their luxurious homes and speedboats, and donated the cash to charity.

            The Fullers were especially moved by the housing plight of low-income Georgian families.  Although hard working, many could only afford to live in shacks and shanties, often without heat or plumbing.  Unable to save for the down payment of a home, these families were locked out of the American dream of home ownership.

            Millard Fuller directed the talent and energy that had once made him wealthy into a massive plan to stamp out poverty housing.  In 1976 Habitat for Humanity was born.

            From a modest operation that began in tiny Americus, Georgia (population 18,000), Habitat has grown to operate in 36 countries.  Its goal is to eliminate poverty housing worldwide.  There are 1122 affiliates in the United States alone.

            Habitat has a unique approach to fighting the housing crisis.  The organization accepts no government funding and is entirely dependent upon volunteer labor and donations for the construction and repair of houses and its general operating expenses.  Habitat does, however, accept government funds for the purchase of streets, utilities, land or old houses needing restoration, providing that the acceptance of such funds has no provisions that would violate Habitat’s principles.  Volunteers work with the program’s future homeowners to build or refurbish houses, which are sold to the families at cost.

            In the place of the down payment, the families invest not dollar equity but “sweat equity” – several hundred hours worth of labor on Habitat homes.  The Families make small monthly mortgage payments that include taxes and insurance, generally for a period of 20 years.  Those payments are used to support the construction of more houses.

            Since its inception in 1987, GCHFH has done quite well, according to Dan Willis, GCHFH’S Community Affairs Coordinator.  The organization has evolved from completing one or two homes a year to completing 13 homes in 1994.

            The rate of mortgage defaults for Habitat families nationwide is minuscule at less that one percent.  Cleveland’s record is even better – not one family in Cleveland has ever defaulted on its mortgage, Amazing, Willis points out, because many of these families were considered “un-bankable” by traditional lenders.

            Habitat is not just about building homes, but about building community relation sand realizing depressed neighborhoods as well.  GCHFH must be invited into a community by a neighborhood development council.  As long as he communities are willing to work, GCHFH is willing to work with them.

            “We really react to neighborhoods that want us to build in them,” says Stephen Frey, director of GCHFH.

            Currently, GCHFH is actively building in the Central neighborhood of East 30th, and in the Hough neighborhood of Luther Avenue.

            Next year will prove to be GCHFH”S most challenging yet.  In celebration of Cleveland’s bicentennial, GCHFH is planning a “Bicentennial Village” – revitalization of an entire neighborhood in just one year.

            “It is a major undertaking, “says DuCHez, with emphasis on “major.” Substantial aid is coming from the International Habitat office to revamp the Fairfax neighborhood, which encompasses the area bordered by Cedar Road, East 80th, East 103rd, and Woodland Avenue.  GCHFH’S goal is to build 50 homes on its own and to induce private developers to match that number.

            Volunteers will be needed for the Bicentennial Village.  Willis said that turnout has been extremely encouraging with last year 2,000 people showing up at worksites.  Cleveland has a great need for housing, Frye asserted, but also a great deal of resources.

 Copyright by the Homeless Grapevine published issue 9 Spring 1995