Property: Going Up In The World

A self-help project, already successful in Africa and the US, is enabling Britain's hidden homeless to build themselves houses. Rachelle Thackray joins in
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The Independent Culture
IT'S 9AM AND already two young men are hard at work in the pale early sunshine, knocking nails into timbers on a sandy building site 10 minutes' walk from Peckham Rye station in south London. The light glistens on the scaffolding and there's a hum about the place; the kettle's on in the shack, and there's a board plastered with pieces of tape formerly attached to the hard hats of construction workers, each bearing a name, some bearing triumphant slogans - the so-called wall of fame. This is a potent symbol that testifies to the sense of achievement felt by the hundreds of untrained volunteers who've put thousands of hours into building four terraced houses from scratch.

The Peckham site was bought last year by a group of local volunteers under the banner Habitat for Humanity International, a charity which came to Britain three years ago. It has been supported by donations from business partners in its aim to give the "hidden homeless" - those who have resigned themselves to living in dreary council accommodation because they will never afford a mortgage - the chance to own the house of their dreams. The only obligation for these prospective home-owners is to help with the building work: the rest of the labour and the money for materials are donated by community-minded philanthrop-ists and individuals who are eager to participate in a "real" housing project.

Ironically, one of Habitat's main problems has been getting people - especially council planners - to believe that amateurs can accomplish such a momentous task. David Stapleton, who set up Habitat in Britain after he heard about it at a church conference, says: "What caught my imagination was that this was international but it operated at the local community level. The basic theory behind Habitat is to help people who have a housing need to help themselves. We describe ourselves as offering 'a hand up, not a hand-out'."

Habitat was founded in the United States by a successful lawyer, and has been supported from its early days by former US president Jimmy Carter, who still participates in an annual "blitz build". This year, for example, 100 houses went up in Houston, Texas, over five days, through the efforts of 2,500 volunteers; others have been built in deprived parts of the Philippines and Hungary.

David Stapleton started out in his home town of Banbury, Oxfordshire, by gathering a group of like-minded people and setting about identifying where the real housing need was. "The bulk of the need is met by housing associations and local authorities, but they fall short in so many areas. Most people are housed but in substandard places - tower blocks with young families on the 20th floor and lifts that don't work. Local authorities can only meet priority needs. It's often the middle band - mums and dads with a couple of kids - who suffer. We are looking to help them."

After doing some basic research, Habitat sets up a local charitable company, elects a board of directors and creates sub-committees. "There's a fundraising and PR committee, one for site selection and building, one for drawing up plans and getting planning permission. We look for small sites, what you'd call infill sites, where we can build two, three or four houses. We try to do it in one go because we have to resource the whole thing at once. We don't build on a large scale."

There are now two further groups in the UK; one in Belfast has already constructed 16 houses. The other, Peckham, hopes to finish its first four houses next month. Site project manager Tim Idle, who came to Southwark after working for Habitat in Africa, says the principles are the same across the world: there are projects in nearly 90 cities worldwide. Although nearly all the work is volunteer-driven, the potential home-owners have to prove that they want the house. "In Tanzania, we'd say: 'You deliver your 12,000 handmade bricks and we'll believe you are serious.' They would often bring other building materials - if a family had a tree, they'd bring it to cut costs because there were no planning regulations at all."

In Britain, the demand for involvement takes the form of "sweat equity": up to 500 hours of work put in by prospective home-owners either on site or in related activities, such as stuffing envelopes for fund-raising mailshots or organising events. There is no shortage of applicants, says Tim. "Home-owners have to do a lot of hard work. Most housing in Southwark is council housing, and not attractive; even so, there is a long waiting list. Demand and supply are seriously out of whack. The council doesn't have the money to be a better provider, in spite of the well-documented need."

The mortgage hurdle for these home-owners is cleared through fund-raising and corporate support: organisations such as United Airlines and Body Shop International have each shelled out pounds 50,000 to sponsor the Peckham houses, enabling Habitat to provide an interest-free mortgage, with owners paying the loans back at just pounds 38.50 a week. The Banbury houses were built at a pounds 40,000 cash cost, but are worth pounds 63,000 on the market.

So how does the charity stop home-owners moving out and pocketing the profit? "That's one of the big issues we had to resolve," says David Stapleton. "We had to protect our charitable donors, so our mortgage agreement has a protection clause. If the owner did choose to sell the house in the first five years, the difference between what they bought it for and the value on the market belongs to the charity. But we progressively hand over the equity, a little at a time, so that at the end of 20 years they own the house completely."

There are other dividends beyond the financial, he proclaims. "The power of sweat equity is hard to measure in terms of the value it gives the individual. They own their homes in a much more real sense than the average person. We all grow to like our homes because we put our marks on them, but they've built their own homes from scratch. In Belfast, our site adjacent to one of the poorest housing estates has transformed the community."

In Southwark, the project has transformed the attitudes both of the local council and of individuals. Tim Idle says: "The council wasn't very enthusiastic; they were worried that we wouldn't deliver." David Stapleton adds: "To an organisation that houses thousands of people, the fact that we wanted to build four homes didn't have much impact. They thought we were a little do-gooder group. We had to demonstrate we could do what we said. Credibility is an issue every time, though once people see it happening, they get excited. People tend to sit and watch before they'll buy in."

For homeowners, this is a chance to live in a real community. "Already," David says, "one of the families in Southwark has clocked up all their hours and they're still going on, working on other people's new homes. This builds more than just houses; it's a good way of getting to know your neighbours. It's noticeable in the US that Habi- tat home-owners tend to stay put. They invest so much in the house they are in no hurry to leave."

Claire Lewis, who is married to Simon and has an 18-month-old son, Nathan, has signed up for one of the Peckham houses. Presently, they only have a one-month rental contract. "We've applied for mortgages but been turned down because of Simon's income,"Claire says. "He's a support worker with special needs adults. This is such a good opportunity for us, we're really pleased. People couldn't believe it when we first told them. They thought there had to be a catch."

There are also palpable effects on the volunteer force which provides the labour-hours for each house. Corporations such as BT and Goldman Sachs have sent day teams to sites - and found the exercise produced results similar to those from an outward bound challenge. Others, such as the construction firm McNicholas and accountancy firm Clifford Chance, have given Habitat pro bono help and expertise.

"United Airlines has had very good experiences of sending groups along. They come back saying they've learnt new skills and achieved things they never thought they could," says Tim Idle. "It's a day out of the office, and at the end of it, they are quite a team." Jobs range from banging in nails - the houses are designed to be "volunteer-friendly" - to guarding the site overnight. Volunteers at the Peckham site have included 16- year-old schoolgirls and an unemployed roof-tiler, who joined up after passing by. And there have been visits by people from the Duke of Gloucester, Habitat's patron, to the Body Shop's Anita Roddick.

David Stapleton, who is already liaising with groups in Birmingham, Colchester and Littleham-pton (near Body Shop's HQ), is aiming for 25 community projects. "Building a house is not that complicated if you have people to teach you. Knocking nails into timber is not a difficult task. We're getting people from all walks of life; from unemployed people who want something to do, to people who take time off work to come along." More than 95 per cent of the work in Peckham has been done by untrained volunteers, although the electricity, gas and glazing will be installed by professionals.

The site's volunteer co-ordinator Noel Ellard, formerly homeless himself, says the new home-owners are often taken aback. "From having to knock on doors and deal with red tape, suddenly people are coming alongside them and saying 'We want to help you'. Getting hand-outs doesn't help you, but in a hand up there's so much respect and dignity." But it is the volunteers, he says, who are the main beneficiaries. "A site is a great leveller. Nobody asks for your credentials. Everyone who comes to us is a gift. We get asset managers and doctors and lawyers and checkout girls and beauticians; we've even had royalty.

"So much in this world is hype, but Habitat is such a practical mission. You see 17-year-olds putting roofs on and putting in electrical cables. Suddenly they realise they have a sense of worth. At the end of the day, they feel they have done something dramatic. They're so proud to put their name up on the wall of fame."

Habitat for Humanity GB can be contacted on 01295 264240, or write to Amanda Wallis at The Malthouse, 25 Bridge Street, Banbury, Oxfordshire OX16 8PN

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