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If I Had a Hammer

The most efficient way to answer housing problems is to empower people to build houses for themselves.

As many as 750 million people today live in homes without water or electricity - and that's just in the world's cities. Conditions are even worse in the villages of the developing world. Between 250 and 500 million people live in illegal shanty towns, without basic services or security of tenure. And hundreds of thousands sleep on city pavements. Beside such figures, the housing problems of the developed world pale into insignificance - but they are nonetheless horrifying. American Housing Survey data for 1985 suggests that 1,700,000 of the US's subsidized housing units are physically inadequate. Government statistics for England in 1986 listed 900,000 homes as 'unfit for human habitation'. The charity Shelter estimates that 364,000 people in England were homeless in 1988, while the Urban Institute in the US calculates that between 567,000 and 600,000 Americans are homeless on any given night.

On these pages Mike Bucki from Atlanta, Georgia, looks at a small but encouraging drop in this ocean of misery - an international charity which is working with the poor to outlaw unacceptable housing and homelessness. In so doing, Habitat for Humanity is tapping into a gathering trend in development thinking that the most efficient way to answer housing problems is to empower people to build houses for themselves.

For instance, the UN Centre for Human Settlements (also known as Habitat, but no relation) advocates an 'enabling strategy' towards housing conditions in developing countries which puts as much initiative as possible in the hands of community groups. The Brundtland Commission, reporting in 1987, took a similar line. It quoted a community leader from the world's third largest city, São Paulo, who said that the ability to build was not the problem. 'It is the poverty, the lack of planning, the lack of technical assistance, the lack of financing to buy construction materials, the lack of urban equipment,' Walter Pinto Costa told them. These are the problems which Habitat for Humanity is trying to address.

Sunday, 23 July 1989, 7.00 pm. At Koinonia, six miles south of Americus, Georgia, several dozen relatives, friends and neighbours of Bo and Emma Johnson are preparing to help them celebrate the final payment of the mortgage on their home. As a copy of the mortgage is engulfed in flames, enthusiastic cheers and applause fill the community house. Bo Johnson, a retired farmer of few words, shouts, 'I can own my own house!'

The 'mortgage burning' ceremony will be seen as more than just a personal triumph for a poor, black, uneducated couple. It is a milestone too for a remarkable organization.

Based in Americus, Habitat for Humanity International describes itself as 'an ecumenical Christian housing ministry which seeks to eliminate poverty housing in the world and to make decent shelter a matter of conscience'. To date, it has helped nearly 5,000 families like the Johnsons - in 29 countries - to build and own their own homes.

The story of the Johnsons' home begins over 20 years ago with a couple whose circumstances could not have been more different from theirs.

Linda and Millard Fuller had everything many people desire: two healthy children, a large home in the suburbs of Montgomery, Alabama, and all the trappings of a good life in the United States - domestic help whenever needed or wanted, closets filled with the latest fashions, a luxury automobile, a cabin on the lake, two pleasure boats and an architect drawing plans for an even larger primary home on a 20-acre lot.

But Linda Fuller wasn't looking forward to the new house. 'To me,' she says, 'it was going to be a prison.'

Millard was married to the mail order business he and his partner, Morris Dees, had started while at law school. It had succeeded far beyond expectations. Four years after law school, at 28, Millard Fuller's net worth was more than a million dollars. And he was working day and night towards his next goal - ten million.

Linda felt lonely, unloved. She had tried to voice her feelings, but Millard couldn't or wouldn't listen. She had even told him she didn't love him any more. He only responded with more luxuries for the family. 'When they made a little squeaky noise I'd throw another Lincoln automobile at them and thought that would be happiness.'

Linda did the only thing she felt she could do. She left. She flew to New York to seek counselling.

'I was devastated,' says Millard. 'In a real sense it was like losing my mother again.' His mother had died when he was only three years old and he had never got along with his stepmother.

After nine days Millard couldn't bear being in the house alone any longer. He chartered an airplane and flew to Niagara Falls -'because I've never been there,' he explained to the pilot, one of his many employees. It was also many miles closer to Linda.

While they dressed for dinner in a motel room on the Canadian side, the pilot flicked on the TV. The story, just beginning, was about a young woman who went to China as a missionary. She fell in love with a young soldier. He wanted to marry her but knew it would almost certainly ruin his military career. He sought advice from the village elder who told him, 'A planned life can only be endured.'

Millard found himself looking at his own life with new eyes. His plan - he realized - was to get richer and richer and richer and 'to eventually be buried in the wealthiest part of the Montgomery cemetery'. He called Linda. Yes, thank God, she would see him.

The elder's words echoed through his mind as he flew to New York the next day: 'A planned life can only be endured.'

After an evening walking the streets of New York City, tentatively reaching out to each other, and after an all-night session of talking, praying and singing - hymns mostly - Linda and Millard Fuller were reconciled. And they came to a momentous decision. They would sell their half of the business and give all the proceeds away.

Even the minister who had been counselling Linda told them it was a 'rash decision', but they were determined. 'I realized so clearly that being married to the company almost lost me my family,' says Millard. 'I wanted to separate myself from that which had separated me from my family.'

Linda was excited: 'We didn't know what in the world was in store for us. But we had faith that God would show us the way.' It was November 1965.

Millard's business partner, Morris Dees, exercised his right to buy out Millard's half of the business. While waiting for the arrangements to be finalized, they spent several weeks visiting a friend on a communal farm in south Georgia. Koinonia, as it was called, had been founded in 1942 by a minister-philosopher, Clarence Jordan, his wife Florence, and another couple, Martin and Mabel England.

Members of the community sought to live a life of simplicity like that of the early Christians, sharing all things in common, work as well as its rewards. The farm was open to all who shared its ideals, black or white, and irate whites in the area had responded with bombings, shootings and beatings.

In those weeks following their momentous decision, the Fullers spent many hours with Clarence Jordan, a man, writes Millard, 'who took God's word literally'. Together they launched Koinonia into a new initiative - helping people like Bo and Emma Johnson build homes of their own.

In 1969, the year that Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the surface of the moon, Bo and Emma Johnson signed an unusual contract with the Koinonia Partners. The 'partners' promised land, materials and most of the labour needed to build a three-bedroom concrete block house at a cost of $6,000. The Johnsons took part in the construction and promised to make monthly payments of $25 for a period of 20 years. Koinonia would make no profit and the Johnsons would not be charged interest on the loan.

'Twenty-five dollars, I just got to go for this,' Bo Johnson remembers thinking. He put his 'X' on the document and 'never did have no doubts' that he'd eventually own the home - free and clear.

The Johnsons' monthly payments went into a 'Fund for Humanity' to provide homes for other low-income families. The Koinonia Partners increased the fund with profits from their communal farm and with donations from churches and individuals from around the United States.

Forty homes were built during the first four years of the project. Then, in 1973, Linda and Millard Fuller took the concept of non-profit no-interest housing to Zaire in Central Africa. In the town of Mbandaka, where the Zaire River crosses the Equator, more than 100 homes were built in three years. And, as if they had nothing else to do, the Fullers with help from donors in the US, provided artificial limbs, crutches and eye glasses for dozens of people who needed them.

In 1976 the Fullers returned to the United States and founded Habitat for Humanity International, an organization based on Koinonia's concept of no-profit, no-interest housing. Over the next years it attracted thousands of volunteers to the dream of eliminating poverty housing in the world, among them former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn.

After last year's drought, the thundershowers are welcome even if they raise the humidity to an almost suffocating level. This is, after all, south Georgia, and tropical heat at this time of year is to be expected. A ceiling fan offers minimal relief, but none of the Johnsons' guests show impatience even though many of the facts Millard Fuller will cite are well known to them.

He speaks of almost 5,000 houses built to date, with six or eight more going up every day, in 29 countries around the world. The progression is taking on geometric proportions. Two or three thousand 'partnership' non-profit, no-interest homes will probably be built next year.

Booming from his lanky six foot four frame, Fuller's voice has a slightly nasal yet compelling quality. On his speaking engagements around the country people have asked him, 'What happens to the houses when the folks move in? Don't they just tear 'em up and then move out?'

'No!' he replies. Bo and Emma 'stayed'. 'They haven't moved off somewhere. They stuck. The exciting thing about this work is that the folks who are moving into these houses are staying there. We went to Africa. And the first house we built there was for a man named Bernard Lokesa. We moved him in 15 years ago; he's still there. The first house we built in another project in the United States, the Torres family, they are still there.'

The Johnsons know what a difference a decent home can make; three of their four children are college graduates. One is a lawyer, another is a nurse, and a third is a psychiatrist.

After the mortgage-burning ceremony the Johnsons' thoughts are on the many others like themselves around the world. Says Bo: 'The one thing I hope for is that a lot of people hang in there and get their mortgages burned up.' Emma adds her advice: 'The best way to pay for them houses, don't ever let a payment double up on you. Be sure you have your money, the fifteenth of every month.'

Habitat for Humanity and its founders do not believe in hand-outs. They see themselves, in Fuller's words, not as 'case-workers' but as 'co-workers' with the poor. The Johnsons were the first to make use of their 'hand-up'- and they are being followed by thousands, all over the world.

There are 378 Habitat affiliates in the US, five in Canada, one in South Africa, and more than 71 projects in 26 developing countries. A new national centre is under way in Australia, with three affiliates to date, and a Habitat group in Britain is in the early stages of formation.

Utilizing voluntary labour, the cost of a Habitat home in the US, with three bedrooms and a bathroom, averages $28,000. In developing countries decent homes cost $1,000 to $3,000. The homes are appropriate to their locale.

All materials for each house are paid for, or donated, in advance. Local affiliates contribute one-tenth of their fund-raising efforts to Habitat International. They also tithe the payments they receive on homes already built - with the end result that a home-owner in the US, Canada or Australia effectively pays for as many as three homes in a developing country while paying off his or her mortgage.

The homes are sold, at no profit and no interest, to families who are too poor to secure a bank loan. A committee at each local affiliate selects future home-owners on the basis of housing need, ability to repay the loan, family size, character and willingness to volunteer time at the project - without regard for race or creed.

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Publishing permission refers to the rights of FANW to publish the full text of this article on this website.