My Story as Told by Habitat Houses
The Habitat House
“No social system will bring us happiness, health, and prosperity unless it is inspired by something greater than materialism.”
In the mid-1990s, I recall listening to a radio program about a Children’s Bill of Rights. Children from around the world had sent in letters offering suggestions for this program. One letter in particular grabbed my attention and remains vivid in my memory. A 14-year-old boy wrote, “Every child should have a blanket and a place to lie down and sleep!”
The last time I was in the Philippines was 1998. I read in their main newspaper, The Manila Times, that 25,000 abandoned children were living on the city streets and scrounging for food in landfills. I have walked these streets and the streets of other cities and seen groups of children huddled together, sleeping in doorways without a blanket in sight—throwaway children. A recent census in Los Angeles found more than 90,000 people living on the streets of that city. Many of these are parents with children, real children with their own hopes and dreams!
These are our children homeless on our streets. There are thousands of them! It’s a strange world we live in where dogs and cats often receive better treatment than children. Welcome to America! Let’s go shopping. Blessed are those who care for others.
Habitat builds for people not profit.
Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit organization that works to care for others and provide sleeping places for both adults and children. They do their best, but they are losing ground. Many families, including children, fall through the cracks in our system—a system where, as they say, profit rules. The trouble with the profit system these days is that it seems to be profitable only for a few.
The need for decent, affordable housing in this country and throughout the world continues to increase. This is especially true as 83 million new people are added to this planet every year. Every one of these new human beings needs food, water, a blanket, and a place to sleep. Millions of families in our country spend over one-third or even one-half of their income on housing alone. I know middle-class families with steady incomes who work and struggle first to purchase a home and then to make their mortgage payments on time. Money that used to go toward medical care, food, and a child’s education is now spent so families can keep a roof over their heads.
Since coming to Oregon 14 years ago, I have helped build 20 Habitat houses here in our community. All across this country and in many other countries, people like you and me are working with our neighbors to build affordable housing with needy families. Habitat is not a giveaway program; rather, it offers people a “hand up, not a handout.” So in addition to taking on an interest-free mortgage, the new homeowners have to put in 500 hours of “sweat equity,” working with us volunteers to help build their home. Because we work with mainly volunteer labor from all walks of life—men, women, young and old, skilled and unskilled—we are able to build these houses for about $60,000, including land. This results in a mortgage that even low-income families can handle. (Land is more expensive in the cities, which makes mortgage payments higher.)
Habitat volunteers come from all walks of life.
A Habitat house, or any decent house, needs to be built so it doesn’t leak either water or air. We take care to ensure that there are no holes under the siding that could let in moist air—which can cause mold and rot, compromising both health and home—and increase energy use. All walls are covered with 4×8 sheets of oriented strand board (OSB) and 30-lb. felt paper before the siding is installed. Further care is taken to ensure that these new houses are not full of toxic fumes, which can come from paint, carpet, and a host of other common, seemingly innocuous materials. We work to make the home energy efficient, well ventilated, and comfortable, and we use safe, health-preserving materials that require a minimum of upkeep and maintenance. We try to build from forest products and other materials that are renewable and sustainable so that we don’t lay further waste to our homeland. Anyone building a decent, affordable house can do this. What it takes is a desire to learn, a willingness to be helpful, and the energy to make a difference. That is what we volunteers working with Habitat for Humanity try to do.
One of the joys of building a Habitat house is that you get to work with and know a new family. We build more than houses. We develop close friendships as we work side by side, taking breaks together, and sharing our stories. I will let the story of a young teenager, Ashley, tell you what I mean by this: “Contrary to what people may think, having a lot of brothers is not always fun. I know. I am the only girl in a family with six children. We used to live in a small house with two bedrooms. My parents and baby brother slept in one of the bedrooms. The other bedroom was for my four older brothers and me.” How can “girls rule” when living like this?
A big part of building an affordable house is to build small. Habitat houses are around 950 sq. ft. for a two-bedroom and 1,100 sq. ft. for a three-bedroom. Do we really need our bedrooms to be the size of a discotheque? It is great to dance, but usually, though not always, we go to our bedrooms to sleep for eight hours.
Unlike these small Habitat houses, the trend in our country has been away from affordable housing. I have heard real-estate agents and bank officials advise clients to build large because it will increase the resale value of their house. So we wind up building a house either to inflate our egos or to see if we can make a profit. We somehow have gotten away from building what our family really needs.
In areas where the local city codes will allow it, as in our city, Habitat doesn’t build a garage. The organization puts it simply, “We build for people, not cars.” This, of course, reduces the total cost and makes the mortgage lower. On the other hand, off-street parking is provided.
Is happiness a full garage?
Garages are mainly used to store stuff most of us really don’t need. A Habitat home doesn’t come with lots of storage other than closets. We trim the closets in our houses with little more than just a shelf and pole to add some storage space. Hopefully this minimal storage space is an encouragement for homeowners to do something with their lives other than shop.
There is a natural rhythm to all, and we can enter that space which is really not outside ourselves. It is important not to neglect our inner lives, to do what it takes to bring us closer to the deepest and best part of ourselves. We always hope that living in their own home built by us volunteers will help Habitat families find this space.
As theologian Howard Thurman put it, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.”