Habitat for Humanity: Building with dignity

jimmy carter

Two months ago, a day after suffering a fall in his Georgia home, 95-year-old former US president Jimmy Carter was back to building homes for Habitat for Humanity. Wearing a white bandage on his head and with a bruise over his left eye, he was seen handling blocks of wood and a power drill at a building site in Nashville, Tennessee. In October, when that footage was released by NBC News, it went viral. He had sustained injuries and required 14 stiches. That didn’t stop histravel plans to attend an event held for volunteers for an upcoming home building project.According to USA Today, Carter told everyone who had gathered there that even though he had to go to the hospital, he had “a No. 1 priority” and that was to come to Nashville and build Habitat homes.

Habitat for Humanity (HFH), a nonprofit, Christian housing ministry has been helping low-income families build an affordable home for four decades. Habitat operates in nearly 1,400 communities across the United States and in over 70 countries in the world. Each year, about two million volunteerssign up to help Habitat for Humanity build a safe place for families in need of better and affordable housing. Habitat’s focus is to impact poverty-level housing where one in four people live in the world. The(HFH) houses are sold to partner families at no profit.It was founded in 1976 by Millard and Linda Fuller of Atlanta, Georgia. The couple’s Christian faith was perhaps deeply embedded in their psyche and they passionately believed in “love and help thy neighbor”by reaching down and lifting people up. After findinga worthy cause and scope to display human generosity, they gave up an affluent lifestyle and went to Central Africa’s Zaire (now theDemocratic Republican of the Congo). They bought many acres of land and gathered volunteers to build houses for the poor. The Fullers oversaw the project for three years, and then returned to the States.

To make Habitat a multinational initiative, many joined hands to begin a new life of service. That included Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn. In 1984, the Carters took their first Habitat trip to New York City to renovate a six-story building that helped 19 needy families in dire need of decent housing. For 35 consecutive years President and Mrs. Carter have been “champions and strong voices for affordable housing for all, donating their time and leadership to build and improve homes through Carter Work Project.” From 1984 up until Jimmy Carter was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2015, theCarters led at least one overseas trip a year to different parts of the world. The trips greatly helped to raise awareness about their project’s commitment to the critical globalneed for affordable housing. Their hands on approach made it easy to recruit volunteers and to inspire enthusiasm so that they give importance to the needs of others. According to Rowena Sara, a spokeswoman for Habitat for Humanity International, the Carters have worked with “over 103,000 volunteers and helped build and repair 4,331 homes across 14 countries.” Their personal involvement brought the organization national and international attention and visibility and their names have become synonymous with the Christian nonprofit. Now,95-year-old cancer free Jimmy Carter is travelling again as a Habitat for Humanity spokespersonand volunteer. SinceAugust, 2016, Carter has been regularly going to Habitat for Humanity sitesalongside volunteers in Memphis andNashville to build and repair homes. His aim is to raise awareness and inspire local high school students to be involved in Habitat’s Carter Work Project.

Having a high-profile person work with any philanthropic organization is considered an added benefit. While president, Bill Clinton got involved with Habitat and during his Africa tour he went to the project sites in Kasane, Botswana where Habitat was creating decent and affordable housing. Country music legends Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood have been volunteers for Habitat for Humanity since Hurricane Katrina. Two years back, theywere working side by side with Jimmy Carter in Memphis. This year, both of them worked alongside Carter in Nashville. Housing rents there rose by 64% between 2011 and 2017. Minimum wages increased only by 14%. As a result, many people have been displaced. With shortage of housing, the Habitat project in Tennessee is a blessing in disguise and it has risen to the occasion.

People from all walks of life have shown interest in Habitat’s work across America. Habitat USA is doing an excellent job at grassroots level. Since its inception, Habitat has built, repaired and renovated homes for more than one million families. It has developed local chapters across the United States and those affiliates maintain and support charitable causes in their communities. Habitat actively advocates changing legislation to improve local housing market to provide support to low-income families. It also offers families disaster relief in areas that are prone to natural catastrophes.

In the global arena, the Habitat International houses for example, are being built in Sylhet’s Srimangal area tea planters in Bangladesh. Habitat’s global projects are extended to the islanders of the Philippines to the poor of Athiru, Kenya to the mountain area people of Chile. Last year, an old High school friend of mine had sent me a video clip from Sylhet of Habitat volunteers from Syracuse, New York area. They were building a modest brick house for a family with physical disability who was in need of a home. I was amazed to see that the simple looking houses that Habitat builds do incorporate basic accessible design features and are in sync with the local cultural setting and custom. The volunteers use locally available materials which keep the building cost low. Each house is built with the family in mind so that they meet the homeowner families’ need.

Habitat for Humanity – International Bangladesh (HfHI BD) projects started in 1999. In one week alone, they build about ten houses. “HFH Bangladesh takes a holistic approach to development, conducting activities through Habitat Resource Centers, and working closely with communities, partner organizationsand other Non-Government Organizations. Other essential players in the Habitat program are volunteers.” With the help of these volunteers, local and international, donating their sweat and labor, Habitat BD has built houses on the outskirts of Dhaka, near Kaligonj and Dhamrai, helped drive the push for clean water and sanitation through Handwashing, donated much needed supplies to cyclone victims of Roanu, and other worthy sanitation ventures in Northern Bangladesh. All in all, this has been a multi-pronged attack on homelessness, and poor health caused by poverty, lack of resources and education, and training. It’s making some difference in spite of the sheer magnitude of the problem.

The most common misconception is that Habitat houses are given for free. Volunteers along with would be owners work together to build the Habitat houses that are meant for low-income families. The Habitat homeowners pay for their homes by investing what is termed as “sweat equity” into the home.The homeowners pay a monthly mortgage and they also pay a nominal down payment and closing costs before getting the keys to the house. This helps to ease the stigma associated with charity and the homeowners feel proud that they are creating a sustainable future for their families. To quote Jimmy Carter: “Habitat has successfully revived the stigma of charity by substituting it with a sense of partnership – the people who will live in the homes work side by side with the volunteers, so they feel very much that they are on the equal level.”

The requirement of “sweat equity” and paying an affordable mortgage are the two most important criteria to qualify for a Habitat home. The most remarkable advantage of becoming a Habitat homeowner is that they don’t pay any interest on their monthly mortgages and the building costs are financed by a revolving fund called “The fund for humanity.”

The monthly payment is adjusted to that family’s income and is never more than 30 percent of that family’s total income. This reminds of the family of Maria Hernandez (name altered) in Baltimore. Through occasional private tutoring of two kids of Maria, a Latina woman, and a single mother, I have come to know the family for a number of years. She has always worked at a minimum wage job in a fast food restaurant as a cashier. She is one of the 30 percent of American workforcewho was making ends meet with $8.88per hour (19% below national average) along with some government assistance in terms of food stamps and small housing subsidies. Nonetheless she always wanted to own a small house instead of wasting money on rent which goes up every year while her income stays the same. With very little income, she wasn’t able to save much to make a down payment even on a modest house in the market. Her dream of home ownership remained as such for many years. Beginning of this year when she got a promotion as a day-time supervisor, she applied through her local Habitat organization andwas deemed qualified for a Habitat for Humanity home. Maria just didn’t qualify because of her need for a better housing in raising two teenagers. The raised income indicated her ability to pay an affordable mortgage in determining that she wasn’t a default risk. In addition, she will also attend financial education classes to prepare her for long-term success in keeping up with her end of the deal. Habitat took into account her willingness to partner with it and she has agreed to work to build her own home together with the Habitat volunteers and pay areasonable mortgageafter she moves in. Maria will pay only few hundred dollars in down payment ($500) and put in 375 hours as “sweat equity” in helping to build her dream home. Maria doesn’t have training in hands on construction work; she will be alongside the volunteers who will guide her through the entire process.

Last time I saw her, a happy Maria told me that she feels more proud of the fact that she will have a hand in building the house. She proudly told me that it will feel like a hand up not a hand down! I give it two thumbs up because by signing up with the Habitat project, she has proven that an immigrant single mother by putting her heart and soul into a lifelong dream of owning her house. She has shattered the stereotypical image of a poor working mother who mostlyrelies on the state to take care of families like hers. Her persistence, determination, and hard work ultimately paid off to live a life of dignity.

Americans including ethnic minorities and immigrants work very hard and are extremely proud people. When they work with their own pair of hands and let others help in achieving a dream, it is not really considered charity. They would do any kind of work and not be dependent on anyone. They may be poor but they value human dignity. In order to maintain their work ethics they grow up with the right set of values in protecting human dignity. Self-respect teaches them not to take something for free. Without grumbling they put in the time and the hours to own their claim on something that matter to them like living in your own house. Whether home prices are rising or falling, each family wants homeownership, and like every Tom, Dick and Harry, theywant to put down roots to become part of their communities. Low-income families who qualify for Habitat homes believe that Habitat isn’t just about homelessness; it is about one’s sense of belonging and ability to pay a proportionate amount of their income to ensure a safe roof over their head. They want a decent place that is their very own and not depend on relatives and the state to give them shelter. They want to live in a home that they can afford without being hassled by banks with foreclosure notice in the mail every month when they cannot make payments due to economic hardship. Habitat assures low-income families with that safe and secure feeling of becoming a homeowner without losing their dignity.

Why volunteer at all? The answer is somewhat complex; there can be as many reasons as the number of volunteers. The greatest common denominator, if one took a tally, may be our inherent altruism which manifests through generosity, service and selflessness. Most human beings are moved by the plight of others. Out of compassion they reach out to their fellow beings to remedy the shortcomings/deficiencies, material or emotional. Beyond that, there is a practical impetus that may drive philanthropy. It’s been mentioned since time immemorial that altruism enriches us as well as the recipient in many ways. The spiritual fulfilment of the donor is richly rewarding, and may lead to untold benefits – mystical and psychological. Financial rewards are not too shabby either. In the USA, every act of charity can be converted, during tax time each year, into a material deduction that translates into dollars, and enriches the taxpaying citizen. Although most of us do not volunteer to write this off during annual tax time, the indirect benefits need to be reckoned with in full measure. I believe one of the greatest pleasures of life is that he/she who serves almost always benefits more than he or she is served whether we are doing large things or small things. The goal is the same – contributing to create a better world. Ralph Waldo Emerson has truly quoted: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, and to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Zeenat Khan is a short story writer, and columnist. She writes from Maryland, USA




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