Spotlight Exclusives

Fighting Poverty One House at a Time, by Elizabeth Blake, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs, Advocacy, Legal, Habitat for Humanity

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The current housing crisis is increasingly impacting families and communities throughout the U.S., highlighting the issues of housing in general and of American homeownership in particular. Whether through rental housing or homeownership, Habitat for Humanity believes that decent, affordable housing is fundamental for children, parents and entire communities.

Homeownership happens to be a core piece of Habitat۪s model, in which homeowner partner families invest hundreds of hours of “sweat-equity” labor building their homes and others۪, then purchase their homes through affordable, no-profit loans. Monthly mortgage payments are then “recycled” in order to build still more homes and reach more families in local communities around the world. By investing themselves so intensely in their homes, Habitat partner families also are investing themselves in their neighborhoods. They and Habitat volunteers are building homes and communities at the same time.

In my travels on behalf of Habitat for Humanity, whether in the U.S. or around the world, I see time and time again the fundamental role decent shelter plays in the lives of families, the foundation it provides for good health, for children to study and learn and grow and for entire families to hope, dream and plan for tomorrow. The impact is truly transformational. One of the beauties about Habitat, however, is that the transformation happens not only in the lives of those who live in the homes, but in the hearts of those who help build them.

For more than three decades, Habitat۪s time tested partnership solution has proven effective throughout the U.S. and in some 90 other countries.

In November of this year, for example, Habitat for Humanity will begin construction on its 300,000th home in Naples, Fla., and 300,001st in Zacapa, Guatemala, at once celebrating the milestone we۪ve been able to reach through unwavering support from so many partners and reflecting our look forward at all that we must do to further our mission globally. Through careful, considered selection and a focus on true affordability, Habitat is succeeding with homeowners who, by definition, are considered too “uncreditworthy” to qualify for a conventional home loan. Habitat۪s foreclosure rate remains low, even through the current housing correction.

At Habitat for Humanity, we believe that affordable housing, including affordable homeownership, does far more than simply put a roof over someone۪s head. In clean, decent, stable housing, families are better equipped to overcome their poverty conditions, to build upon the stability and permanence adequate shelter provides and to contribute to the strength of the neighborhood around them. Good housing in communities attracts economic investment and development; it contributes to thriving school systems and community organizations. This serves as a catalyst for civic activism and a stimulus for community-based organizations.

Safe homes and neighborhoods, in which residents are satisfied with housing conditions and public services, help build social stability and security. Studies have shown that homeowners are more likely to participate in civic and community organizations, to vote, and know the name of their member of Congress, than similar groups of renters. Homeowners are also less likely to move, further promoting stability both in the community and in their families.

The benefits of stable, adequate housing are especially pronounced in the development and experiences of our children. Inadequate housing causes children۪s health to suffer, including an increased risk of infection and a greater chance of suffering mental health and behavioral problems. Overall development is similarly threatened: children who live in inadequate housing have lower educational attainment and a greater likelihood of being impoverished and unemployed as adults. In contrast, children of homeowners demonstrate improved test scores, reduced behavioral problems, and are 116 percent more likely to graduate from college. As Lisa Harker, a British housing expert, explains, “Childhood is a precious time when our experiences shape the adults we become. But children who grow up in bad housing are robbed of their future chances”

Homeownership is also a powerful means of long-term wealth creation and accumulation, vital components in any effort to effectively address poverty. One telling study found that the median net wealth of households with less than $20,000 of income was $72,000 for homeowners, compared to only $900 for renters. For low-income minority families, homeownership contributes significantly to wealth accumulation. The median average annual housing wealth appreciation for low-income minority families is over $1700, whereas non-housing wealth accumulation over the same period is $0. Homeowners also live in larger, higher-quality units and enjoy better housing services with costs that decline over time.

Over 95 million people currently have housing problems in the United States, a number that is certain to grow if the housing crisis worsens. If we are to succeed in the fight against poverty, we must support the expansion of housing and homeownership both as policy and as practice. We must demand that our leaders make affordable homeownership a policy priority. We cannot effectively address poverty without first focusing on stable housing, and without expanding the housing conversation beyond foreclosures to discuss true solutions for affordable housing throughout our nation and the world. With support from countless partners worldwide, Habitat for Humanity is making an impact, but we have to do more. And with continued support and engagement, we will.

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