- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

Between soaring interest rates and a monthly income of less than $200, the only shelter the Verduguez family could afford in Cochabamba, Bolivia, was two tiny rooms in a run-down adobe-block house.

The walls are cracked, the stucco is falling and water leaks through the roof when it rains. Romulo, 45, and Adela, 41, struggle to find enough room for their six children, ages 3 to 21, to sleep.

“With no bathroom in the house, our family has to go down the street to public toilets and showers shared by 80 other people. Everybody pays 32 cents each time to use the facilities. Water from the public system is available only once a week,” said Mr. Romulo.

For many people around the world, finding decent housing remains a challenge.

An estimated quarter of humankind — more than 1 billion people — live in substandard housing or have no home at all. Families are trapped in a daily struggle to survive amid unpleasant, often inhuman conditions.

Last week in Barcelona, delegates to the World Urban Forum took a first step toward addressing the problem. Representatives of Habitat for Humanity International, a private, nonprofit organization, and the U.N. Human Settlements Program (U.N.-Habitat) signed an agreement to combine their efforts to improve housing for the poor and reconstruction after disasters.

The purpose of the partnership is to pool the expertise and resources of the two organizations in the pursuit of clearly established goals, officials of Habitat for Humanity said during interviews in Washington.

The two groups already work together unofficially, but hope formalizing the relationship will make their work more effective.

“We aim to place housing for low-income people at the center of the international development agenda by addressing issues that perpetuate the cycle of generation after generation living in poverty housing,” said Tom Jones, vice president of Habitat for Humanity.

The Agreement of Cooperation calls for the two groups to focus their efforts on goals that include:

• Elevating housing issues in the international policy arena.

• Providing sanitary, humane and decent conditions in slum and post-conflict areas.

• Making needed infrastructure improvements in war-torn areas.

• Helping local groups better address housing problems in their own areas.

• Collaborating on studies and data collection.

• Increasing global awareness of substandard living conditions through international training sessions, conferences and workshops.

One of the workshops in Barcelona last week, “Housing for All in the New Millennium,” was dedicated to the study of global housing policy and advocacy. The goal is to develop an international housing coalition involving major international organizations like the World Bank.

Poverty housing is a bigger problem than most people realize, Kathleen Moore, director of external affairs at Habitat for Humanity, said.

“Housing has to be a major aspect of the policies of national leaders, administrations and international organizations, because it doesn’t only stand at the basis of families, but also at the basis of our communities and nations,” she said.

Tracy Kaufman, research associate with the National Low Income Housing Coalition, agreed. “Safe, affordable housing is a basic necessity for every family. Without a decent place to live, people cannot be productive members of society, children cannot learn and families cannot thrive,” she said.

Recent studies show that the quality of housing is linked to health, educational, social and economic levels. That’s why “slums cannot simply be considered as an unfortunate consequence of urban poverty, but need to be treated as a major issue,” Mrs. Moore said.

A U.N.-Habitat report said: “The positive aspects of globalization, among which are greater longevity, increased literacy, lower infant mortality and wider access to infrastructure and social services, mask the unfortunate truth that these benefits are not being shared equally.”

Habitat for Humanity is particularly interested in finding ways to deliver the benefits of homeownership — including self-esteem and independence — to single or divorced mothers with children.

Tina Fellows, who works at a preschool center in London, spent her workdays assessing children’s needs and providing positive experiences to help them develop. But at her home in an inner-city apartment, her own children, Micaiah, 8, and Jared, 3, were suffering.

“I felt a failure,” she said in a testimonial on the Habitat Web site. “I could not provide them with a basic good environment.”

That changed when she was able to move her family into a new three-house project by Southwark Habitat for Humanity south of the Thames River early this year.

“Our new house is a real home,” Mrs. Fellows said. “I now know that Micaiah and Jared will have physical space and the freedom to play safely, as well as the ability to be part of a community and to be proud of where they live. … I’ve become happy again.”

Habitat officials said society at large benefits when low-income people are helped to develop communities by building and renovating houses. They also acquire marketable skills.

Leon and Shelly Gelzer, whose apartment building was next to a house where illegal drugs were sold in northeast Brooklyn, N.Y., began to volunteer with Habitat on weekends, not realizing that they would qualify for a home of their own.

Now Mrs. Gelzer is using the skills she learned working at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens to plan an elaborate garden of both vegetables and flowers on their own property. With his background as a housing developer, Mr. Gelzer serves as chairman of a new homeowners’ association.

Despite their efforts, public-housing advocates worry that rapid population growth in developing countries is creating ever more explosive conditions, with a rapid increase in urban slums around the world.

A U.N.-Habitat report determined that by 2001, the world’s slum population had grown to 924 million. Ninety-nine percent of city dwellers in Ethiopia live in slums, as do more than 98 percent of urban residents in Afghanistan.

Especially in developing countries, cities are growing beyond their capacity to provide basic services as more and more people abandon the countryside to flee conflicts or to seek work.

The trend is exacerbated by globalization, which tends to concentrate money and jobs in the cities, according to several studies.

Says “The State of the World’s Cities, 2004,” published by U.N.-Habitat:

“The fruits of globalization are rapidly being offset by the negative aspects of rapid urbanization: increased poverty, greater inequality, and the prediction that by 2020, urban areas in the world’s least developed regions will absorb nearly all of the global population increase predicted for the next three decades.”

Jane Katz, director of international programs at the Washington office of Habitat for Humanity International, wants to sound the alarm.

“We need to address these issues to assure the well-being of the next generation throughout the world. We have a responsibility to see that childhoods worldwide will not be scarred by substandard housing and homelessness,” she said.

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