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Building homes with ‘sweat equity’

Thursday, June 19, 2014
Above: Volunteers help with the building of a home during United Way’s National Day of Caring on May 18.

Greene’s vision 


Since its inception in 1976, Habitat for Humanity has turned more than four million people across the world into homeowners.


Among the millions are paralympian Carlos Greene and family whose house, which happens to be green, is on Waterloo Road, Carapichaima, and represents 14 years of pure struggle.


In February, 2000, within four months of being diagnosed with acute glaucoma, Greene lost his sight. But long before his optic nerve started to deteriorate, he envisioned his future home:


“An upstairs and downstairs, standing on 16 pillars, with a living room, kitchen, seven bedrooms, dining room, study, and gym. The inside would be tiled and the outside paved and fenced.”


His dream had to be put on hold, however, as his sight rapidly declined with every blink.


“All my finances and resources went to try to save what little vision I had, having to pay doctors and specialists,” Greene said.


He eventually lost his sight, but the image of his home remained. 


In June, 2000, blind, but with strength that would allow him to compete at the shot put and discus events at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, he started to build his dream home. 


“Eventually I said I would start to build with what little I had, so we laid the foundation, back filled, and put up some blocks.”


Having been in social work for his entire life, Greene could have easily gotten enough help to build his home without having to lift a finger. But that’s not how this power lifter operates.


“I like working and sweating, so my hands are always in the plough and dirty. I would paint, rub down the wall and try to level it off and so on.”


Four years later, he, his wife and three daughters moved into a temporary skeletal structure on the site.


“The foundation was there and part of the structure, but for the most part, there were no doors, no windows, and the upstairs had no roof. So we fixed a small two-bedroom part downstairs to live in for the while.”


Little by little, with the dedication, consistency, and discipline typical of a professional sportsperson, Green built his home.


“For the next 14 years, we fixed a little here and there and kept on saving, until resources eventually ran out.”


Qualifying for the 2012 Paralympic Games brought more than prestige to Greene—it brought him his dream home, and it wasn’t through a Government gift, but HHTT’s helping hands.


“I became a BPTT athlete ambassador and BP is also a sponsor for HHTT. Someone happened to bring up the talk of applying to HHTT to get help to build my home, and I decided there was nothing to lose.”


So in March 2014, he applied to HHTT for assistance and got approval in April, having ownership of the land, and a monthly income of less than $5,000.


In less than a month, the dream that he was working toward for the last 14 years began to take shape.


“They installed windows and doors upstairs, ran electricity in the front area, plastered the walls and floors, furnished the toilets and bathrooms with plumbing fixtures, and together with BP, painted the entire structure.”


“I had a dream for my house to be certain way, and all that I’ve been seeing for the past 14 years is here—a nice green, beautiful structure that stands out.”


But although HHTT’s work had been completed, Greene said his work wasn’t over just yet.


“I’m not done yet. The dream isn’t fully realised and when I start something, I must finish it.”


HHTT is not a charity organisation that gives handouts, National Director Jennifer Massiah says.


“This is not a giveaway, but it is a partnership. You can’t sit down and wait for a house to fall from the sky,” she said.


The concept of ‘sweat equity,’ which required clients to put in 100 hours on their home and 200 hours on someone else’s, maintained this principle.


“For example, they’ll be responsible to off-load material when it arrives on site. Clients must do some aspects of unskilled work on their home as well as other houses.”


Generally, she added, HHTT projects were budgeted at $150,000 per family which was usually enough for a three-bedroom house. Over the course of 25 years, families repaid the loan in monthly installments of $500.


Although most of its work was geared toward building houses, HHTT’s primary aim, according to National Director Jennifer Massiah, was to develop homeowners,.


Owning a home required much more than knowing how to put up a straight wall, and a sturdy roof, Massiah said. 


“A lot of emphasis is placed on home ownership. We conduct programmes on financial literacy, construction skills, legal matters, and disaster risk-reduction, among other things.”


Programmes are free of charge and conducted for HHTT’s clients and the wider public.


Ambitious home owners, who experienced difficulties at various points along the sometimes long and unpredictable road of building a home, can also go to the organisation for advice.


“We help those who are trying to build a home. For example, someone may need architectural advice, while another person may need guidance on surveying or engineering. We try to negotiate with professionals and provide this help in the best way possible.”

HHTT facing challenges


Established in 1997 under the auspices of former Education Minister Clive Pantin and former President and Prime Minister, the late ANR Robinson, HHTT has provided more than 900 families in T&T with homes.


However, if a stronger partnership with Government is established, the organisation can do much more, Massiah says. 


Legal land issues, she said, was the biggest obstacle to establish the global organisation’s vision, “A world where everyone has a decent place to live,” in T&T. 


“Currently, we have over 338 applications, but half of the people don’t own the land. 


Low income families come with very sad stories, but they may be squatting or have a Certificate of Comfort and according to the law, we cannot build on the land.”


The authorities need to help us resolve these issues.”


Although it empowers hundreds of families to own a home, the organisation struggles to run its own household, comprising 18 staff members.


“When donors give you money, they want the money to go towards housing projects, not staff salaries, phone bills, rent, and other operational expenses.


All project funds must go to projects and because of this, we are really hoping Government offers us a subvention at least to pay staff salaries.”


She said their office, located on the ground floor of the Newsday building on El Socorro Road extension, was cramped and rent, although discounted, remained a significant strain. 


HHTT applied for subventions, she said, but nothing materialised.


“We’ve met with the Housing Minister and government several times and they were receptive but meetings never translated into a subvention or a strong partnership. 


We can do much more, but the piece of the equation that’s missing is Government’s support.”



Do you qualify? 


To be eligible for assistance from HHTT in building a house, you must:


• Have clear ownership of the land or a rental agreement.


• Receive a monthly income of less than $5,000.


• Pay ‘sweat’ equity by providing 100 hours of work on your home and 200 hours on someone else’s.


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