A Home Of Their Own
Habitat for Humanity has built 70,000 homes for low-income families all over the world.
Thursday, October 15, 1998
A lot of folks are concerned about the need for more affordable housing. But no one has tackled the problem to more practical effect than Millard Fuller, a soft-spoken Alabama-born lawyer who is founder and president of Habitat for Humanity International, a nonprofit Christian-based group that has built more than 70,000 sturdy, no-frills homes for low-income families in more than 2,200 locations in 60 countries around the world.
On Wednesday evening, Fuller will speak at Pacific Grove''s Asilomar Conference Center about his personal odyssey and about Habitat''s plans for the future, which include an ambitious project to build 10,000 homes simultaneously all over the world during the third week of September in 2000.
Fuller''s principle is brilliantly simple: What makes home construction so expensive? Labor costs. But if people agree to pitch in and help build their own homes, that big price tag drops off considerably. In return for their physical labor, the families receive a no-interest loan from Habitat''s fund to cover the remaining cost of their new home, a loan they pay back over 20 years. The concept is community-based, yet demands that individuals take responsibility for helping to solve their financial problems. And the houses get built.
Fuller says he was a self-centered, self-made millionaire in the 1960s who cared more about his business than his family. When his marriage was on the brink of collapse, he and his wife Linda decided to give up their fast-track lives, sell all their belongings, and move to Koinonia Farm, a nearly defunct Christian community in a small town in Georgia. There they rediscovered their Christian roots and, together with the two other resident couples, built a home for a local low-income family as a way of, Fuller says, putting Christ''s values into action.
Over the next five years, the Fullers and their friends continued to build low-income homes near Koinonia Farms, utilizing the self-help, communal principles Fuller would later define more precisely in Habitat for Humanity. In 1973, the Fullers moved to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to see whether their ideas could be applied to Africa''s housing problem. After three years of successful home-building in that country, Fuller decided to return to the U.S. to form a nonprofit organization that would spread the program worldwide. In 1976, Habitat for Humanity was incorporated.
The program works, Fuller says, by adapting itself to local conditions. The goal is, he explains, to give people "a simple, decent place to live" --that''s the name of his most recent book. "But obviously, a simple, decent place to live in Northern California won''t look like a simple, decent place to live in India," he says. The typical Habitat home in the U.S. is 1,000 square-feet, three-bedroom with one bath, and costs $40,000. That cost can rise to $90,000 in Northern California, he says, largely because of high property rates, but the no-interest, long-term loan still makes the program affordable.
Habitat homes, although simple, are generally considered to be very high-quality. In Homestead, Fla., the town hardest hit by a major hurricane in early 1992, most buildings were devastated, sporting broken windows and caved-in roofs even six months later. But the half-dozen houses built by Habitat for Humanity stood unscathed, convincing this reporter that the group was doing something seriously right.
Habitat works by being invited into a community, where they then set up an affiliate, which appoints a local board of directors. The board creates a family selection committee, which considers applications from local low-income residents interested in participating in the Habitat project.
Locally, Habitat for Humanity has a Monterey Peninsula affiliate, which built two 1,300 square-foot homes in northeast Salinas in 1994. Those homes were sold to two low-income families who moved in at the beginning of 1995.
And the Christian angle? It''s clearly the animating force behind the organization (voice mail messages at Habitat headquarters sign off with "have a blessed day"), but aside from handing new homeowners a copy of the Bible, Habitat leaders insist there''s no pressure or proselytizing. "We are openly and unabashedly a Christian ministry, but we are not doctrinal," Fuller says. "We build homes for people regardless of their religion."
Sometimes, Habitat is invited into a country by a government or monarch. Those invitations are often brokered by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, a major Habitat supporter who flaks for the organization in top-level meetings around the world, and who pitches in with hammer and nail at Habitat building sites several times a year. This week, Fuller says, Carter is meeting with the King and Queen of Spain, and is expected to slip in a good word about Habitat, which is operating successfully in neighboring Portugal.
Most of the time, however, Habitat projects are set up by local communities or sympathetic missionaries rather than national leaders.
Fuller has received multiple honors and accolades for his work. He was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor, was named Builder of the Year for 1995 by a noted professional journal, and holds a collection of honorary doctorates, all in recognition of his unstinting commitment to the goal of building safe, decent, affordable housing for the world''s poor. And in Fuller''s case, those aren''t just words.
Habitat for Humanity Founder and President Millard Fuller will speak about the organization''s future plans at Merrill Hall, Asilomar Conference Center, Pacific Grove, Oct. 21 at 7 pm. Tickets are $10. For more information, call Habitat''s Oakland office at (800) 228-6407.To get involved with Habitat for Humanity locally, please call 422-4828.