For a long time, I’ve struggled with Habitat for Humanity as a charity. On the face of it, the premise seems pretty worthy: help folks find affordable housing. Over the years, as I’ve thought and researched the subject, I’ve reached the conclusion that on the whole, Habitat for Humanity is likely making life worse for the people it is trying to help.
First and foremost, it appears that Habitat focuses on single family detached dwellings in suburban and exurban subdivisions. While this may not be true of all Habitat affiliates, it appears from my research on local Habitat affiliates and the national website to be generally true. I see this as a cruel prank of sorts on the future homeowner. At a time when it is becoming less and less affordable to live so far outside the city center and less desirable to become more dependent on a car for living, Habitat is offering to folks the false promise of economic independence and middle class lifestyle.
Many writers and publications have taken on this subject, including The Atlantic Monthly and Worldchanging, and the implications are pretty clear. The rising cost of living in suburbia are slowly making these areas unlivable for the people who could just afford to live there. People, like those who are being ‘helped’ by Habitat for Humanity will fare far worse, since they could not have afforded to live there at all.
The opportunity costs that Habitat incurs are high as well. By spending the money and using the land to build low-density housing, they prevent those resources from being used to build more efficient, high-density housing that could have a larger effect on the overall housing market in a region. If Habitat were to make it more affordable to build up the population density in former suburban areas, they could essentially drive the growth of livable, walkable neighborhoods, something that could possibly also make the difference in the cost-effectiveness of public transportation as well.
Further, Habitat focuses on traditionally-built homes. As far as I could tell, no Habitat affiliate makes any particular effort to build highly energy efficient homes. This is a further disservice to the people whom they are trying to help. I would have thought, in particular, that in areas with extremely depressed home prices (e.g. Detroit) Habitat would be working hard to buy and renovate marginal homes to make them more livable and efficient. I saw no such evidence of that on the Detroit affiliate’s web page, at least.
Considering these missed opportunities and disservices, I truly wonder how Habitat continues to attract donors and volunteers. Certainly, there are many opportunities for them in this economic downturn and housing crisis if they can change their model to address them. It may be more difficult for them to make these sorts of changes due to their affiliate structure, but by the same token, that structure might provide a way for particular affiliates to lead the way on their own.