Amid political wrangling over how to meet low-income Americans’ growing need for social services, social entrepreneurs like Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver are creating their own solutions.
In response to increased demand for affordable housing, the group is expanding its services beyond the construction of single-family homes to help revitalize entire neighborhoods.
That effort begins here this year with the launch of Habitat of Metro Denver’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative to help existing homeowners maintain and repair their homes.
It’s always been part of Habitat’s mission statement that affordable housing benefits entire communities — not just individual homeowners. Affordable homes attract
jobs and support local businesses. Residents who work and live in their neighborhoods also reduce carbon footprints from commuting, while children perform better in school (and adults in jobs) with the stability of home ownership.
So far, Habitat of Metro Denver’s emphasis has been on new home construction: It recruits volunteers to build houses, then acts as mortgage lender so low-income families can purchase the homes with zero-interest loans. Recipients also contribute 250 hours of sweat equity to help build their homes.
“It’s taken us 30 years to get to a place where we’re selling about 40 homes a year to families,” says Heather Lafferty, CEO and executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver. “It’s challenging to continue to grow at the level the need is growing.”
Similar to new homeowners, existing homeowners helped through Habitat of Metro Denver’s neighborhood revitalization initiative will make reasonable financial and sweat equity commitments. “We believe that when you provide somebody a hand up versus a handout, the long-term effect is going to be much greater,” Lafferty says.
Rather than trying to fix everything for every family, the group is focusing on specific ways to improve homes — like roof repairs, weatherization, painting and landscaping — and building core competencies in those areas.
Social entrepreneurs “are both visionaries and ultimate realists, concerned with the practical implementation of their vision above all else,” says Ashoka, an organization which invests in ideas for social change.
Rather than cutting services as need grows, Habitat of Metro Denver is finding new ways to increase affordable-housing stock, including buying and rehabbing foreclosed homes.
The group is also taking advantage of lower real estate prices to purchase larger parcels of land for multi-family homes. Habitat of Metro Denver completed its first townhome project, the 24-unit Bails Townhome Community, in 2011.
Today, the group has three years of land in inventory, with plans to build 50 percent or more of future projects as townhomes to help the maximum number of people.
Focusing on the need for affordable housing motivates Habitat of Metro Denver to be innovative in finding ways to serve that need. That flexibility is a missing component of too many government solutions that fund one social program at the expense of another, or worse — hold funding hostage over unrelated political agendas.
While the need for new homes is increasing, many families are also struggling for the first time to maintain their existing homes, says Lafferty.
Habitat of Metro Denver’s neighborhood revitalization initiative will begin in Globeville, where nearly a quarter of residents are below the poverty level. The group is rehabbing 11 townhomes in Globeville for occupancy this spring, and plans to build 16 additional townhomes nearby.
The Metro Denver affiliate is intentionally choosing neighborhoods where it already has a presence, Lafferty says. Globeville was also chosen for its high owner-occupancy rate, near 55 percent, and strong neighborhood pride.
Based on feedback from Globeville’s Civic Associations, Habitat of Metro Denver will focus first on helping owner-occupied homes. “One of our commitments is really to dig into the neighborhood that we’re working with and become true partners,” Lafferty says. “That takes a lot more time and a lot more of an investment.”
That investment includes a $300,000 grant from Wells Fargo to help develop the neighborhood revitalization initiative. The group piloted its program last July, sending 100 volunteers to Globeville to repair neighborhood homes. Those hands-on experiences helped craft the long-term initiative.
Existing home repairs provide different challenges than new construction, including less predictability and more liability — issues Habitat will address before transitioning to actual ground work in the second half of 2012.
“We really want to be thoughtful and intentional to make sure that we develop the best program possible,” Lafferty says.
Habitat’s strong focus on its mission is the key to its success as a social entrepreneur. Just as business entrepreneurs use passion, innovation and creativity to create new industries, social entrepreneurs use those talents to create large-scale solutions to social problems.
Social entrepreneurs don’t necessarily earn income — rather, they marshal resources needed to support their work, says Duke University Professor J. Gregory Dees, who teaches social entrepreneurship.
Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver mobilizes the resource of volunteers to build and improve homes. The group utilizes other resources too: Unused building materials are used to frame windows and doors for future homes, while a metal salvage business recycles scraps and generates income.
Earning income is socially entrepreneurial only if it achieves a social purpose beyond making money, says Dees. That’s certainly the case with Habitat of Metro Denver’s three ReStores home improvement outlets, which resell donated appliances, furniture and building materials.
The outlets further expand Habitat’s mission by enabling more people to improve their homes affordably. ReStores also fund 95-100 percent of the group’s administrative expenses — and keep about five tons of material from the landfill each week
“We need to be nimble so we can continue to achieve a world where everyone has a decent, affordable place to live.” Lafferty says. “It’s a simple statement with incredibly bold, audacious work behind it.”
Habitat’s entrepreneurial focus on creating capacity to adapt to changing needs is a model many programs should consider as Americans’ need for social services continues to grow.
Sometimes, it takes a neighborhood to make a community thrive.
Lisa Wirthman is a freelance writer living in Highlands Ranch. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Globeville by the numbers
Tremendous civic pride and a high owner-occupancy rate are reasons why Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver picked Globeville for the launch of its new Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative.
Owner occupied homes: About 55%
Homes built in 1939 or earlier: Over 45%
Average estimated value of detached houses (2009): $232,600
Median household income (2009): $37,597
Percentage of population below poverty level: 22.7%
Median age: 28.1 (almost 35 percent of the population is under 19)
Total foreclosure filings (2009): 42
Non-Latino white: 25.77%
Native American: 0.98%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 0.73%
CRIME RATE PER 1,000 PERSONS (2007)
Sources: Denver Department of Planning Community Development, The Piton Foundation, city-data.com.
Article source: http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_19830827