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A habitat for humanity

Habitat for Humanity, a global housing ministry started in 1976 in Americus, Georgia, the United States of America (US), that globally had cumulatively built, rehabilitated and repaired 800,000 houses for four million people as of 2013 (average family size: five), is again launching a bold goal, themed ImpactAsia, to build an additional three million structures for 15 million people in the Asia-Pacific region alone by 2020.

ImpactAsia’s inaugural event was held in Hong Kong on October 16 last year. The directors of each and every country of Habitat’s Asian chapter were present at the ceremony.

Agnes K. Y. Tai, from Habitat Hong Kong, which succeeded Habitat China in 2014, revealed that because the city has been chosen as one of two global brand promotion and resource development offices alongside Habitat Great Britain, Hong Kong was chosen for the pan-Asia Pacific event.

Established by Millard Fuller (1935 to 2009), an Alabama University law school graduate who had made one million dollars by the
age of 29, but subsequently gave all his possessions to Churches and charities, Habitat first set foot in Asia in 1983 with a pilot project in India.

The housing microfinance institution has since erected 300,000 structures in the entire Asia-Pacific area and is aiming to increase that figure 10-fold by 2020.

Partnership housing was first introduced to Habitat by Fuller in Koinonia Farm, Georgia, after divesting himself of his material possessions. He moved there with his wife, Linda, the cofounder of Habitat for Humanity International, in the late 1960s.

Working together with the founder of the farm, Clarence Jordan, the Fullers developed the concept of partnership housing to engage volunteer labour and partnership through families’ sweat equity (their own labour).

They also mobilised the donation of construction materials to reduce housing costs as far as possible; then sell the completed dwelling at cost, with no interest attached to a micro loan.

The principal repayment period usually spans several years. Based on this practice and the couple’s further experiment as missionaries in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) between 1973 and 1976, Habitat for Humanity International was formally born in 1976 with the goal of serving one million people.

This was achieved in 2005 when the 200,000th house was completed, months after the aging Fullers were driven out of the global housing ministry they had founded almost three decades earlier.

By that time, Habitat was already in today’s shape with over 1,700 affiliates in every US state, with four area offices outside of its home country overseeing around 100 country offices.

Since then, Habitat International has been led by Jonathan Reckford, who spoke at the inaugural ceremony. Millard Fuller was a recipient of 1996 Presidential Medal of Freedom and has authored 10 books.

In recent years, Habitat has enlarged its service scope by involvement in disaster response and the rehabilitation and repair of existing houses, and achieved the 800,000-house threshold in 2013.

Nevertheless, partnership housing can only be replicated to the extent that micro-lending is allowed and practically implementable.

In China, where Habitat has five offices, all started by an American United Nations Development Programme Volunteer, Valerie Mamara, in 2000, micro-lending by Habitat was out of question, as only licenced financial institutions can legally disburse loans.

Habitat’s national director in Bangladesh, John Armstrong, an American, says that Habitat micro-loans were called off by the authorities in 2011 and, since then, the housing organisation had only urban floor, roof repairing and slum rehabilitation work to take part in.

However, where possible, Habitat’s original partnership housing model remains the mainstream practice. Though interest on par with inflation rates has been charged in recent years, houses are at all times sold at cost.

Beyond building physical structures, Habitat is beginning to advocate for better housing policies and land ownership protection.

However, Habitat for Humanity is, by and large, quite contrary to something god-sent to the poorest of the poor, as pointed out by Rajan Samuel, managing director of Habitat India, a special partnership with the middle layer of the poverty pyramid.

To qualify, Habitat beneficiaries must own their land and in many cases possess readily available cash to pay for part of the construction. For those only requiring repair service, an existing structure, even though dilapidated, should be in place.

Samuel presented this situation as the dilemma standing between helping more people and the ability to continue helping.

• Hongyu Wang