Global forum hosts central Maine Habitat for Humanity co-founder
High cost of housing biggest challenge organization faces

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@mainetoday.com
MaineToday Media - March 28, 2013

WATERVILLE -- When it comes to building homes for those in need, every country has its own challenges, a Habitat for Humanity volunteer told a global forum group Wednesday.

In some countries, cultural barriers are the biggest obstacles to building low-income housing; while in the United States, the high cost of housing is the biggest problem.

Scott Guay, who co-founded central Maine's chapter of Habitat for Humanity in 2001, spoke about the unique challenges Habitat volunteers face in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Guay spoke to a crowd of about 35 in the REM Center as part of the Mid Maine Global Forum, a group that promotes understanding of global issues in central Maine.

The basic model of Habitat for Humanity remains the same wherever it operates, Guay said, with volunteers gathering the resources necessary to build a home for an applicant. The new homeowner then must pay off the costs of the home in the form of an interest-free mortgage.

"Habitat for Humanity is not a giveaway program," Guay said.

While the model is the same, the challenges in each country are unique, Guay said.

In the United States, the biggest problem is keeping the cost of housing down, Guay said, a task made more difficult by code requirements and standards that he said are "much more stringent."

"It's expensive to build a house in the United States and it's getting more expensive," he said. "And I'm not saying these are bad things, but they're expensive things."

Guay, who also teaches biology at Colby College, said that in central Maine, Habitat has gotten support from building suppliers, real estate organizations and banks to help bring the cost of a home down to $50,000.

In Maine, "it takes us several years to come up with those types of funds," said Mike Grant, president of the Waterville Area Habitat for Humanity.

The amount, while modest by U.S. standards, is double the $25,000 the group spends on a home in Romania, more than eight times the $6,000 it spends on a home in Jordan, and 25 times the $2,000 it spends in Zambia, where a home consists of a two-room structure made of concrete blocks and a corrugated tin roof.

Other countries may have less expensive housing, but they also have their own unique challenges, Guay said.

In the Romanian city of Oradea, he said, an impoverished community of Romanis, an ethic group that is widely discriminated against and derided as Gypsies, was isolated from the larger community. The poverty and isolation caused Romanis to be mistrustful of outside groups, even well-meaning ones such as Habitat for Humanity. The result, he said, was poor housing options for the Romanis, and no leverage of resources outside the community to help them.

"It's probably one of the last bastions of accepted racism in an otherwise liberal Europe," Guay said.

In Jordan, he said, a mixed-gender group of Americans had difficulty penetrating the conservative, Middle Eastern culture.

"You've got some different cultural social and religious norms, particularly with regard to women, so access by outsiders is limited," he said.

Because of this, it was hard to get critical local participation and support for the housing projects.

In Zambia, complicated home ownership traditions cause many people to build homes on land that belongs to others. Because those homes are impossible to repossess, lending institutions instead would ransack the houses of the defaulting homeowners for anything of value.

"What they do is they go in and take out everything that could be recycled -- the windows, the doors, the roof," Guay said, leaving a "rather unsightly sore, which doesn't look very good for Habitat either, just sitting there as a shell of a building."

In all three countries, Habitat volunteers surmounted the problems.

The isolation of the Romanis was overcome by hiring successful Romani contractors to do some of the specialized work.

In Jordan, he said, mistrusted American volunteers stepped back and gave a significant leadership role to influential local men, who put an acceptable face on the housing projects.

In Zambia, meanwhile, Habitat volunteers partnered with a different organization to buy land and drill wells that would give a clear path to ownership.

In all countries, Guay said, volunteers come to understand that their primary role goes beyond how many nails they can hammer.

"There's no shortage of unskilled labor in the developing world. You're not there because you're so great at schlubbing blocks around," he said. "The biggest qualification is, probably, you have to be open-minded and flexible. It's a bigger cultural sort of exchange."

The Waterville Area Habitat for Humanity has completed three houses since it was founded in 2001 and is working on a fourth house in Oakland.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling -- 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com

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