Habitat for Humanity

A Strategy for Social Change in Erie, Pennsylvania

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In light of the implications of the problem of housing and poverty in Erie, both theologically and the actual physical consequences, it is crucial that the problem be addressed. At the present time the situation is being addressed to some extent by the organization Habitat for Humanity, whose local affiliate, the Greater Erie Area Habitat for Humanity, works to bring quality housing to the “least of these” in Erie. It is important to assess several aspects of Habitat’s efforts. These include the success that Habitat is having in solving this problem, if there are ways that the efforts of Habitat can be improved, whether Habitat is working within the parameters of Catholic social teaching, and the effects that Habitat’s efforts have on the problem of poverty in general.

A brief history of the Habitat for Humanity organization is necessary for proper assessment. Founded in 1976, Habitat for Humanity is an ecumenical Christian group whose mission is to "eliminate poverty housing and homelessness from the world and to make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action" (38). Habitat uses volunteer labor and donations to build or renovate homes and provide families in need of quality housing with an affordable home whose mortgage payments go towards building additional homes. In order to qualify for a Habitat house, families must meet income, credit, and "sweat-equity hour" requirements. "Sweat equity hour" requirements mandate a certain number of hours that candidates must complete working on other Habitat homes in order to earn their own (38).

The following video is produced by Habitat for Humanity andprovides more information about its mission and accomplishments.

The Greater Erie Area Habitat for Humanity chapter was founded in 1989. Since then it has built 26 homes, helping 41 adults and 65 children (40). The following are its requirements for home ownership (39):

1) To qualify, you must have a housing need. For example, no indoor plumbing, leaks in the roof, unsafe or unsanitary conditions, or overcrowding.
2) You need to live or work in an Erie County address.
3) You need to meet the per-month minimum/maximum income amounts and family size.
4) With your permission, we will have a credit check done and will ask you to contact a credit counselor.
5) If you're approved for a Habitat home, you will be required to attend a financial counseling session.
6) If approved for a Habitat home, you will be required to work a total of 300 "sweat equity" hours on your own and other people's houses. Friends and family members can help you in meeting this requirement.
7) If approved for a Habitat home, you will have to pay a down payment of 1% on your house. the amount of this down payment will vary between $450 to $500.

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The Greater Erie Area Habitat for Humanity addresses the problem of high levels of poverty and low quality housing in Erie by identifying those who suffer from this problem and working with them to improve their financial strategies and then helping them to earn a home of their own. The Greater Erie Area Habitat for Humanity does an excellent job of working to help the problem. However, the situation in Erie is much greater than Habitat is able to address. Almost 1 in 4 individuals in Erie live below the poverty line, translating into almost 25,000 people (3). This means that in the past twenty years the Greater Erie Area Habitat for Humanity has only been able to help .004% of those who live below the poverty level to obtain a home of their own. The model that Habitat is using is very successful. Their strategy of volunteer based building, homeowner selection, and revolving funds for the construction of new houses has been very successful in the past. That is why Habitat is the foundation and a vital element in solving this problem. The crucial element is increased service. The churches, Catholics, Christians, and citizens of Erie must do a better job in the call to solidarity. They must recognize the need of “the least of these” among them so that no one has to live in substandard living conditions. By increased volunteerism, in terms of physical labor and monetary contributions, the Greater Erie Area Habitat for Humanity will be able to reach more people and improve the living conditions of a greater number. Churches, schools, and families themselves need to encourage others to answer the call and fulfill their responsibility in an attempt to bring Erie closer to true peace.

By providing those in need with a path to homeownership, Erie is reconciling many of the theological problems that are implicit in the housing situation. Quality housing is one of the material needs that human rights and respect for human dignity require. By providing many with this opportunity Habitat is taking a positive step in increasing the common good and protecting the human rights and dignity of the poor. In that respect they are showing a preferential option for the poor, and those that volunteer with Habitat are showing a true understanding of solidarity. By requiring “sweat-equity hours” Habitat shows their understanding of the value of work and the role of property as a fruit of one’s labor and a tool in the development of the family. The Greater Erie Area Habitat for Humanity may not be able to fully solve the problem with its present levels of volunteers, but it is taking a great step towards promoting the principles of Catholic social teaching in a responsible manner.

Habitat for Humanity understands the principle of subsidiarity. The international parent organization leaves many important decisions, such as individual homeowner requirements, to each affiliate program. In doing this Habitat allows each community to tailor the program to their unique situations in order to be more successful in meeting the needs of the poor in that area.

The Greater Erie Area Habitat for Humanity uses an interesting strategy that relates to the broken windows theory. Instead of building several Habitat homes in the same neighborhood, Habitat tries to build in different neighborhoods. They hope that by improving a house in a neighborhood and showing hope in the area that it will inspire other residents to improve their own homes, clean up the neighborhood, and move the area in the right direction. This is similar to the broken windows theory in that as an area improves in appearance other problems such as crime decrease.

The Collegiate Challenge plays an important role it the Greater Erie Area Habitat for Humanity, as well as in the Habitat organization as a whole. The Collegiate Challenge accepts groups of college volunteers who give their Spring Break weeks in service helping to build homes. This is how I became involved in Habitat for Humanity. In March 2009 I travelled to Erie, Pennsylvania where I spent a week working with the Greater Erie Area Habitat for Humanity chapter. Over the course of the week I worked on three different houses in the area, which included one on East 3rd Street, one on Peach Street, and one in the muddy suburb of Union City. I had an amazing experience over the course of the week, as I worked harder than I had been expecting to work building these houses. As I learned more and more about the organization during the week, I became very impressed with the work that the Greater Erie Area Habitat for Humanity does. My week with Habitat was very rewarding, and I returned home inspired to continue the good work that Habitat does. I have since registered as a volunteer with the Providence chapter of Habitat for Humanity, and I have recruited my father to volunteer in our area with me this summer.

The above photos are from the three Greater Erie Area Habitat for Humanity
builds with which I assisted. By placing the mouse over the top of the frame, a
menu will appear and you may change the slide show settings. By placing the
cursor at the bottom of the frame a menu will appear and you may choose
to view individual photos.

My experience is not unique, and this is why the Collegiate Challenge is important. By inspiring me to continue service with the organization in my own area, volunteerism with Habitat increases. In this way for me combating poverty in Erie had spread to me combating poverty in Rhode Island. The fight against poverty is strengthened nationwide as other Collegiate Challenge participants are inspired to continue working on a regular basis in their own areas. The Collegiate Challenge Program is a way that fighting poverty on a local level can help the fight on a national level as well.

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Groundbreaking Ceremony

This photo is of the Lindenberger family who will receive the house on East 3rd Street upon its
completion. The house was sponsored by the Erie Insurance Company whose CEO is in the
photograph along with Ken and Pat Lindenberger. Clicking on the above link will take you to a video
of the groundbreaking ceremony of the house, including more photos of the family and their son (41), (42).

Overall, Habitat is an invaluable tool in fighting to end substandard housing nationwide, especially in Erie. Habitat provides a model for combating poverty through housing, and this model has proved very successful. The problem with Habitat is that it is a small organization. There are thousands of people in Erie living in bad conditions and this is unacceptable. At its current rate of production it is a slow process for Habitat to help all of these people. The people of Erie need to act in solidarity to increase volunteer participation in Habitat projects so that more houses can be built and Habitat can go much further in eliminating the problem.

The follow video displays various photos from Habitat projects across
the country, showing the true spirit thatshines throughout the
organization. The photos are set to the song "Rebuild" by Switchfoot.

"Every life comes with a broken heart
dying here to be made whole
We are the lost souls with a second start
following the builder home
There's a temple I've found in the strangest part
where the stones are built of souls
where the builder himself has promised, 'Love,
I'm never going to let you go. Go!' "


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