And they shall build houses and inhabit them
Text and photos by Gina Mission

The Welcome sign is out for visitors and volunteers alike at the Maragonon, Cavite site of Habitat for Humanity Philippines.

aragondon, Cavite -- At 39, Dionesia Reyes never thought of living in a decent house, much less owning one. Her husband's earnings as a construction laborer can hardly sustain the family's needs. With two schoolchildren and a sickly toddler, her family can't afford to leave their present dwelling: a room in a friend's house.

Eloisa Profeta and Josefina Calixto work together on their dream homes.

___Eloisa Profeta, 36, is no better off. Her husband is into small-scale buy-and-sell business, who, according to her, "doesn't earn anything" on bad days. Her four kids, aged 3-15 years old, are "too young to help the family." Together, they live with "a friend."

___Thirty-five-year old Josefina Calixto has five kids, and her husband is a construction painter, and, as in the cases of Profeta and Reyes, her family lives in somebody else's house.

Soon-to-be homeowner Dionesia Reyes rolls up her sleeves, and gets ready to put in part of her 'sweat equity' payment.

___The National Housing Authority estimates that only one out of six Filipino families owns a house. The rest either rent an apartment, live with their parents, or make do with shanties that are "nothing more than cardboard and tin boxes." In Metro Manila alone, three million people are homeless or live in makeshift houses. The Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council estimates a backlog of around 3.8 million units from 1993 to 1998.

___Compounding the housing backlog is the increasing daily cost of living in Metro Manila, estimated to be P441 (11.60 usd) according to the National Statistics Office. The official daily minimum wage, however, is currently pegged at P198 (5.21 usd).

Maragondon, Cavite: a Habitat for Humanity site and a haven for dreams

___These figures leave Reyes, Profeta, Calixto, and millions of homeless families, with very dim prospects of ever owning their own houses. But to their surprise and delight, a program called Habitat for Humanity will make their dream come true. All for contributions of 400 hours of labor each, and monthly payments of P700 (18.42 usd) for 10 years.

___On March 21-28, 1999, former US President Jimmy Carter, along with 10,000 foreign and local volunteers, will build 250 homes in various places around the country for the homeless. Sponsored by Habitat for Humanity, the week-long annual Jimmy Carter Work Project (JCWP) is expected to boost the number of volunteers for this noble cause.

___Habitat for Humanity is a non-government, non-profit, Christian organization that builds simple, decent homes for low-income families. It was founded in Americus, Georgia in 1976 by Millard Fuller, and has built houses for over 70,000 families in 60 countries around the world since its establishment.

___Its local partner, Habitat for Humanity Philippines, has moved more than 2,000 families from slums and shanty towns in 20 communities to single-lot houses with potable water in eight sites in the country.

___Habitat works in cooperation with government and the private sectors. Through its donors -- corporate and individual -- Habitat cuts out profits that banks and developers make from financing a home. The goal, says Fuller, is "to eliminate substandard shelter -- poverty housing -- everywhere from the face of the Earth." Fuller's words may sound ambitious, but he is determined. By his own admission, he derives inspiration from the words of the prophet Isaiah: "And they shall build houses and inhabit them."

___In the Philippines, Habitat aims to "move bigger numbers of families from slums and shanty towns to decent communities as land is made available."

___With housing sites in 12 areas in the country, Habitat is targeting to build another 2,500 houses from 1998 to 2001.

___A Habitat home measures 25 square meters on a 50-square meter lot. It has one bedroom, a toilet, a small living room and a mezzanine. It costs around P90,000 in Metro Manila, and is payable in ten years at interest-free monthly installments from P600 to P1000 depending on the site. For comparison, the government's low-cost houses are priced at P180,000 per unit.

___All Habitat houses are constructed through volunteer efforts and materials.

___Assistance comes in the form of donated materials, financial donations and non-interest-bearing loans from individuals, churches, civic organizations and businesses. Construction is supervised by skilled workers who work side by side with volunteers and the future homeowners, who finance their purchases with 400 hours of labor, or "sweat equity", in addition to the low monthly, interest-free payments.

___The volunteer spirit that the project generates brings together people of many backgrounds to work together in building houses. Working alongside the home partner families provides the volunteers with a unique opportunity to see first hand the tangible results of their work - a completed home, a joyful community and a very happy family.

___Habitat volunteer Tom Brokaw, star anchorman of NBC Nightly News, has this to say about the work of building houses for the disadvantaged: "A lot of people feel that they do volunteer work and that it doesn't have any impact - but these are houses-- people are going to live there, and for many they're going to be the first homes they've ever owned. It's harder to have a bigger impact than that."

___"My spirit knows that a house key unlocks more than the front door. It unlocks a new life for families, for their children and surely for their children's children," says longtime Habitat volunteer Judy Crabil.

___Admits Filipino volunteer Maria Congee Gomez: "It feels very good to think that your efforts, no matter how minimal they might seem, can be combined with those of other volunteers, and help to build a house."

___Like any non-profit venture, the Habitat housing program involves many stages. After a piece of land is donated to a local Habitat affiliate, a selection committee goes through a long list of applicants. The committee does a background check to ensure that the families are really in need and not "professional squatters." The chosen beneficiary family then pledges to put in at least 400 hours of labor into the construction of the houses, which, according to Habitat, is also intended to make them conscious of the importance of building a strong sense of community and ownership.

___Habitat houses are not allowed to be sold or leased. A community/homeowners association is organized to serve as the governing body. Families themselves formulate and enforce their own policies. Partner organizations of Habitat provides the families with orientation seminars to prepare them for values development. Beyond the construction of houses, Habitat builds "hope and dignity in the life of a family in need." It establishes a long-term relationship with the family, and provides follow-on opportunities for development.

___Beneficiary families, according to Precy Malimban, Area Facilitator of World Vision, a Habitat partner NGO, are given skills-development training that they can use for their sustenance. "We always tell them that this is not just a relocation area, but also a housing project where they can start their own livelihood, where they can start their family life anew," explains Malimban.

___Some families in the Maragondon, Cavite site, for instance, have entertained thoughts of going into the small-scale boating business because of the site's proximity to Puerto Azul, a popular tourist spot. Others think of setting up floating restaurants, or of organic farming. "They dream and we help them make their dreams come true," Malimban relates. "We teach them to believe in the spirit of community participation, and to value partnership," she adds.

___After all, Habitat isn't just about building houses. It's about having a home. It's about partnership. Its about volunteerism. It's about building a community. It's about re-building a family. And for Dionisia Reyes, Eloisa Profeta, and Josefina Calixto, it's about dreams coming true.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.03.25