Volunteer rebuilding efforts in the Gulf Coast are falling short. The Habitat for Humanity volunteer-and-sweat-equity model is proving ill-suited to the massive rebuilding efforts needed.
The New York Times (Leslie Eaton and Stephanie Strom) reports on the lagging efforts by Habitat for Humanity (EIN 91-1914868 Form 990) to rebuild homes in the Gulf Coast region after Katrina. While the organization's international wing was able to build 8,500 homes after the Asian tsunami, US chapters have managed to complete just 416 along the entire Gulf Coast regions, with another 286 under construction.
The US houses are much larger, more complex, and subject to more building regulations than the $5,000 houses Habitat built overseas. But there is also criticism with Habitat's decision making structure and its unwillingness to change its methods of operations to suit the massive needs in the hurricane reconstruction zone:
- Habitat works only through local affiliates, slowing decision making and complicating fund raising.
- Habitat only builds new homes and has resisted calls to engage in rehabilitation of existing houses.
- Habitat requires cash payments, good credit, and sweat equity by the prospective home buyer. The credit requirement has been especially problematic (and paradoxical) for New Orleans musicians trying to return home, which lead to an exposé in the New Orleans Times Picayune (Sour Note by Katy Reckdahl, January 2, 2007) that the Times story alludes to. Habitat has raised millions for the Musician's Village project, promoted by Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, but few working musicians have had either the credit or the ability to deal with the paperwork to qualify.
- Habitat volunteers aren't all that efficient at home building. Habitat is more about providing volunteers with a heartwarming experience. One Habitat volunteer blogging for the Huffington Post notes that Habitat doesn't let volunteers use nail guns:
We are mostly office types who are no more qualified to use a nail gun than we would be to run a marathon, perform an emergency tracheotomy, or go outside without first lathering in SPF 40 sun block.
And the mismatch of the Habitat model and the real world requirements of home building is not limited to the Gulf Coast. There is sporadic reporting of delays in Habitat projects that have nothing to do with Katrina:
- This week, the Toronto Sun published a call for twenty volunteers willing to work weekdays hanging doors and drywall to complete ten houses, already a month behind schedule.
- Last Sunday (February 18, 2007) The Lawrence (Kansas) Journal World carried a long story about the efforts of the local chapter, Lawrence Habitat for Humanity (EIN 48-1070953 Form 990), to pick up the pace of construction to qualify for a grant of $130,000 from HUD. Executive director Jean Lilley estimates that it takes 430 volunteers to build a 1,110 square foot house. Ms. Lilley has a paid staff of four that not only manages the projects but also run a store that sells new and used building materials to raise money. Her full time salary is $35,496.
Habitat for Humanity illustrates both the strength and the weakness of an organization with a strong commitment to a particular mission and model. The commitment to a model emphasizing local control, volunteerism, and helping people who can help themselves has been instrumental in creating a strong national brand. But this model falls far short of achieving the mission principle stated in the 2004 annual report:
that safe and affordable housing is a basic human right and a fundamental component of dignity and long-term well-being for every person on earth.