This summer, I traveled to Nicaragua with Working Capital for Community Needs (WCCN); and my childhood dream of everyone having access to safe, affordable housing is coming true in the place I least expected.
My Childhood Dream of a Home for Every Family
Growing up in suburban Ohio, I lived in a two-story house with a golden brick façade and slate-blue window-shutters. Our home housed nine people: my mom and dad and seven children.
I used to crave solitude in that noisy house, but it was huge by the world's standards. We had five bedrooms upstairs and a fake-wood-paneled rec room in the basement. We had a vast back yard full of climbing trees and soft grass and a vegetable garden; and in front, a sloping driveway perfect for takeoff into a cul-de-sac clear of cars and always full of bicycles and baseball games.
We never missed a meal, except when we volunteered to fast for "the poor," donating the bit of money we'd have spent eating to those who went without. As sheltered (literally and figuratively) as we were, we heard about families starving in faraway places like Africa and China. We heard about famines and droughts, uprisings and wars, that tore apart whole countries while we crowded around our dinner table every night with plenty to eat.
If Only the Whole World Could Have a Home Like Ours
My views of the world beyond our neighborhood came from newspapers, television broadcasts, and magazines like Time and National Geographic. Poverty seemed vague and foreign, yet the weathered faces of mothers and swollen bellies of their malnourished babies haunted me. I wanted to do something about the inequity of a life that granted my family food and shelter and denied millions of others who were just as worthy as we were.
A vision came to me: If I could have one wish come true, I would give every family on the planet a clean, pretty little house in which to live. In my mind's eye, I pictured them pink, with flowerboxes beneath front windows and a wisp of warm smoke curling up from chimneys. Just to give everyone a house would give them a fair chance at building a good life, it seemed to me.
Years passed and I left that house in Ohio. I lived in dorm rooms, rented rooms, apartments, and then a home of my own. I studied and worked, married and had children, all the while wishing there were something tangible I could do to extend some of my life's blessings to others.
Residents of the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Photograph by Suzanne Skees for Skees Family Foundation.
Slums Are Growing Fast, Globally
Today more than half the world's population lives in urban areas, and at least 863 million people live in slums, according to the World Health Organization. It's hard to count, because many governments deny the existence of slums because they don't wish to provide such services as trash collection, plumbing, electricity, fire, and police--to the growing number of squatters and renters who are left to fend for themselves. The United Nations estimates that the number of slum dwellers will grow to 3 billion (40 percent of the world's population) by 2030.
What Poverty Looks Like for Slum Dwellers in Nicaragua
Nicaragua, the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (after Haiti), sits precisely in the center of Central America, with the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east. Ruled as a Spanish colony for three centuries, Nicaragua underwent a century of despotism and tyranny before its revolution in 1979, when Sandinista rebels fought for independence.* Since then, war and corruption, trade embargos and political crises, have plagued the nation.
Nicaragua faces such environmental issues as deforestation, soil erosion, and water pollution--which could be exacerbated by the recently launched Nicaragua Canal project, funded by Chinese billionaire Wang Jing, a $50 billion project to be completed in 2020. According to the World Bank, 42.5 percent of Nicaraguans live in poverty and 46.5 are underemployed.**
Poverty is usually measured strictly in terms of income, but poverty is multidimensional and as much about opportunity, which is much more difficult to measure. The lack of opportunity to access safe, affordable housing is one of the biggest barriers to low-income families in Nicaragua. Habitat for Humanity estimates that in Nicaragua, where 50% of the need for new home construction and housing improvements is not met, is one of the largest housing deficits in Latin America.
Seeing the Real Thing: WCCN Supports Affordable Housing in Managua Slums
My first trip to Central America led me to a land where many people's dreams have been shattered by poverty; but one of mine came true. This year, working for our family's nonprofit organization, I had the chance to travel to Nicaragua to experience intergenerational poverty in urban slums (the local term here is "precarious housing"). I visited Managua with our partner WCCN, headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, which serves working-poor families in six countries across Latin America by providing access to microfinance, markets, and services, giving them a hand up, not a handout.
Launched in 1984 by citizens opposed to the US government's military involvement in Nicaragua during the Contra War, WCCN has invested $102 million in grassroots communities in Latin America since 1991, serving 34,869 poor farmers, microentrepreneurs, and women in 2014 alone. What's different about WCCN is that they enable average investors--teachers, nuns, retired folks, and my family--to invest in opportunities for coffee farmers, artisans, fisherman, and other small-business owners in Latin America while making a modest return.
U.S.-based WCCN is able to work at the grassroots level by partnering with local organizations whose leaders have expertise in each region's socioeconomic issues, longstanding experience in the communities they serve, and ability to listen deeply to the clients they serve. In Managua, WCCN staff and I visited HABITAR, an affordable-housing nonprofit that's built 4,000 new homes with and for Managua's poorest families since its founding in 1991 with the help of grants, no-interest loans, and supportive capacity building from WCCN.
How HABITAR Builds Homes Not For But With Poor Families
"We want to empower the poor as citizens," says cofounder and Executive Director Ninette Morales. "They struggle against discrimination. We believe they have the right to decent housing." Ninette has worked her entire adult life in affordable housing, first for the Sandinista government and then, since 1991, for HABITAR. She talked about the revolution and how the values of equality for all continue through the mission of HABITAR to support the working poor as they build decent homes for their families.
HABITAR empowers poor families to build their homes in a program similar to Habitat for Humanity. Photograph courtesy of HABITAR.
HABITAR builds homes for families via a model that resembles Habitat for Humanity. Families must contribute 5% in savings and help build the home. They must organize themselves into neighborhood groups, working and making decisions together.
The family must save five percent upfront and invest half of the sweat equity needed to build the structure. An average family takes out a mortgage of $300-400 and pays 18% interest--which is comparable to a local bank loan (for which they'd never qualify, as they have no collateral or credit history) and much cheaper than the 30-60% that loan sharks on the street charge. Before working with WCCN and HABITAR, loan sharks were their only option.
"We work on related projects as well," says cofounder and social worker Cony Rosales. One of the things HABITAR appreciates about working with WCCN, is that WCCN provides flexibility in what their assistance is used for, including much needed housing improvements like installing flush toilets and showers, installing sinks with clean water for cooking and drinking, and replacing a crumbling sand-based wall with a sturdy concrete one.
Collaboration As Key To Success
"This is a cross-sector collaboration with public, private, and social participants," Ninette tells us. "We provide loans and technical assistance to the families. We help them work with the government, which gives subsidies to the poorest families. We also help them bargain with private companies to be able to purchase higher-quality materials for less money. For example, if several families band together, they can get a bulk deal." When neighbors band together, they achieve an economy of scale in building one another's homes and can aggregate orders for higher-quality materials at a lower rate.
Families gain confidence in each other and themselves as they organize as a community. They build their homes together with efficiency of stages: foundations all at once; then walls, etc. More hands make for lighter work. The group must self-manage and reach agreements about their time management, materials, pricing, and project plan. They work with government officials to procure the titles to their own land and transform themselves from squatters into homeowners. They also establish good credit in the process.
Visiting the Families of WCCN
We drive about 25 minutes to a neighborhood called Olof Palme. When we arrive, we're greeted by Doña ("Auntie") Blanca, a community organizer and therapist who keeps in close contact with the families and neighborhoods here and in adjacent districts. It's not uncommon for Blanca to sit for two hours with one family, listening to them sharing their current situation and the challenges they face.
Blanca has observed the following social problems she's observed in the slums here: • Domestic violence • Lack of ability to care for children • Sanitation--clean water, showers and toilets, and trash collection
We visit several families and see the first project HABITAR undertook in Olof Palme: a clean-water sink in a courtyard that serves nearby families.
One of five families that used to live together in this one home. Now they each have their own. Photograph by Suzanne Skees for Skees Family Foundation.
Five Families in One Shack Build Five Sturdy Homes
Years ago, twenty-one people lived together in a rundown slum home made of corrugated tin and wood scraps gathered from trash piles. The group included a grandma, five families, and a pig. (The family had to keep the pig indoors to protect against theft.) Just outside the front door, they kept horses and carts for their transportation business. They all worked in the informal sector collecting garbage, recycling, guarding and washing cars, and making and selling tortillas.
With the support of HABITAR/WCCN, that clan of five families now lives in five separate homes--near one another--made of solid cement block. They have no pigs now. Their children are all in school, for the first time.
Sometimes, it's where families live that puts them at risk. Hurricane Mitch (1998) wiped out the precarious homes of 150 families who then became HABITAR clients. Another major rainstorm last year caused a corroded drainage pipe to burst during the night; a retaining wall collapsed onto homes below and killed nine people. That wall had divided rich, above, and poor families, below.
"The poor people end up living by ditches," Ninette explains, "because the land values are a little more affordable." HABITAR went to work relocating families at risk to a lot they purchased for $3,800.
Creating a Personal Plan for Care
Although HABITAR currently supports 300 families, they manage to get to know each family. Cony spends time in the neighborhoods, walking from door to door with her laptop. She will sit down with each family and figure out a budget for them based on their food, schooling, and other expenses and income from single or dual parents; in order to calculate with them what they can afford to pay each month on their loans.
During the planning stages, Cony also brings an architect who will walk around with the family to study the existing shack or small home and envision together their wishes for construction and their capacity to pay for it.
Rosa's home used to look like the one in the photograph at the top of this article; look at it now! Photograph by Suzanne Skees for Skees Family Foundation.
Rosa's New Home Has a Bedroom, and a Door That Locks
We meet a clan of thirteen people who used to live together in a one-bedroom house, "One on top of the other," laughs 21-year-old Miriam, the daughter of Rosa who took out the HABITAR loan and made payments from her business selling used clothing donated from the U.S.
Now, Rosa's new home boasts cinderblock walls. Some are painted peach. The floors are paved with decorative patterned ceramic tiles--a status symbol here--and the front door, which used to be a flimsy and unsecure cloth, is now a heavy shellacked wood beauty with a brass handle. Inside the small living room, a tube television perches proudly on a bureau, overlooking plastic chairs where we sit to talk with Rosa's family.
Rosa is not at home, because she's out working, selling her merchandise. Miriam describes their family: Rosa, the abuela or grandma, is 41. She has six children, of whom Miriam is one, and three grandchildren. Rosa acquired the original home--built by the government for soldiers in the 1970s-1980s Revolution--when her husband left her and her children to "take up with another woman."
"The old house was very small, made of tin," Miriam tells us. Her mom worked for years to improve it and recently partnered with HABITAR to build a second bedroom onto the home.
Both Rosa and Miriam buy large bags of donated clothing. They make about 75 cents per item sold. Their current loan is for $310 and they pay $10 per month on it. "It's very affordable, thanks to HABITAR. They worked out a payment plan with us," Miriam explains.
Katia poses proudly with her children, Jocelyn and Justin, in the new kitchen she and her husband helped to finance and build. Photograph by Suzanne Skees for Skees Family Foundation.
Katia's Kids Now Study at the Kitchen Table
We visit Katia, another client who sells baked goods on weekends and takes care of her five-year-old son Justin and eight-year-old daughter Jocelyn during the week. Her husband has a great job as janitor for the ministry of the treasury: Not only does that provide a steady income for the family, but it also allows the 26-year-old (Leon) to study for his GED on the job. Katia and he attend Saturday school and they both expect to complete their high-school education soon. Katia wants someday to attend beauty school, and she beams proudly when her children tell me they want to be a lawyer and police officer when they grow up.
"Technology is the best future for my children," she believes.
Katia's housing loan enabled her to build a working kitchen. They used to have to cook over a fire in the courtyard. Now they have a refrigerator to keep food fresh and a kitchen table where the children can do their homework. "We used to have a dirt floor. Now we have a concrete floor and a clean home. It's the beginning of a whole new life for us," Katia says. Her next project will be to build a stable wall at the back of the house; it's a wall shared with the family behind them and it's begun to crumble.
Jessica and her husband with their 11-day-old daughter, Merari, have recently added a composting toilet, plumbed shower, and private trash collection to their extended family compound. Photograph by Suzanne Skees for Skees Family Foundation.
Jessica and Her Family Can Now Take a Shower
Another home visit brings us to an example of a sustainable ecosystem enjoyed by Rosa's other daughter, Jessica, and her husband Richard. They're taking a few weeks off to care for their newborn daughter Merari, who's just eleven days old today. Just outside the family home is a garden with vegetables and herbs, watered by the runoff from a common shower and flush toilet shared by three families. The little group also pay a local man to remove their trash, since the government provides no services in this unofficial neighborhood. (That's common in slums around the world.)
"Poverty is not just the lack of housing," says Ninette. "It's unemployment."
HABITAR's current SEED program, in which families can make improvements to existing homes, has served 1,200 people in 228 families in eight barrios of Managua. They've received $500,000 from U.S. nonprofits and investors--$39,000 of which has come from WCCN.
"Our goal," Blanca concludes, "is for all to be equal--no one more or less."
Each clean, pretty little home WCCN helps to build moves us closer to a world like that. As I leave Nicaragua, I have hope for the world. Through the relentless toiling of our local partners at HABITAR and our WCCN staff in the U.S. and Managua, thousands of families have a roof overhead tonight. And that's a good beginning to a better life.
* A brief history of the bloody war and Nicaragua's efforts to rebuild its freedom and economy can be found here. **This figure is somewhat misleading, as the top 20% have greatly increased their income share over the past 10 years, while the bottom 20%'s incomes have decreased in share over the same period.
Top: A typical "precarious" home in the Managua slums. Photograph by Suzanne Skees for Skees Family Foundation.