Getting an Education on Habitat for Humanity Houses

New Orleans    In Vancouver recently I made a point about the overheated housing market there by noting that I had read that a Habitat for Humanity house had sold for $330,000, which to me seemed absurdly high from what I thought I understood about the sweat equity and low-cost building model for Habitat houses.  Turned out, I was talking through my hat, and now I’m less sure about Habitat’s model and how it works out for lower income families.

Talking to one of our leaders from Toronto, who I had heard mention having a Habitat house in the Scarborough area some years ago, I asked her how that deal worked out.  Her house also cost $330,000, so rather than that being something absurd in red hot Vancouver, that may be standard Habitat fare in Canada.  A little search on the web says the average Habitat house cost is $90,000 in the United States.  A semi-urban, semi-rural area in Maryland lists its homes at between $125 and $145,000.  Every affiliate seems to be able to set its own rules and prices, though the house price, not counting the value of the sweat equity labor, is supposed to equal the actual building cost.

The sweat equity our ACORN leader had invested along with friends, family, and ACORN members and staff was the effective exchange that substituted for a downpayment.  She reported that at the closing she had to sign three mortgages, including one with the City of Toronto that she didn’t even know about until then.  Home ownership has become harder and harder for lower income and working families in the last decade.  Habitat is clear that the homes have to be affordable within the income of applicants but is also clear between the lines that their homes are really for working families, rather than the very poor.

Habitat handles their mortgages at no interest, which is fantastic, but in some ways hearing the stories from our members now and reading their overall website and that of some of their affiliates, there are more similarities between their business model and that of some of the installment land contract companies the ACORN Home Savers Campaign is fighting than I would have imagined.  A Habitat buyer does get a deed at closing it seems, but there are a lot of restrictions written into the Habitat mortgage about everything from repairs on up the ladder.  Foreclosure proceedings seem fixed at 90-days unless there are other measures.  I found our member’s description of how much Habitat versus the owner would receive in a sale or foreclosure or default confusing, so I’ll avoid stepping off the wrong curb here for now, but I will say the whole thing was so onerous that our member refinanced to buy the mortgage from Habitat rather than continuing to be their owner-occupant as soon as she could.

Saying all of this does not dispute the testimonies from many lower income families about their joy and relief at getting into a Habitat home and that includes our ACORN member, or the good will many religious and other volunteers bring to the task of helping build these homes.  Some of the same testimonials come from owner-occupants of companies involved with installment land contracts as well and are equally sincere.

Families are desperate for affordable housing in the face of rising rents and eviction rates and grateful for almost any program or company that puts a roof over their heads.  For organizations and organizers, a little bit farther from these sharp edges dividing homelessness from homeownership, we need to take as part of our responsibility looking closer at the teeth of these gift horses and how they bite and chew.


More Worker Protections Still Require More Worker Representation

Toronto    Continuing to look at the extensive labor protections workers gained thanks to demands and lobbying of unions in Ontario and, surprisingly, the Liberal government, is nothing short of amazing.  Digging deeper after hearing of the recent success from John Cartwright, president of the Toronto – York Labour Council, I found the following goodies for workers in new law:

— Casual, part-time, temporary and seasonal employees will be given the same pay as full-time employees for doing equal work. There are exemptions based on seniority and merit.

— Once an employee works for a company for five years, they will be entitled to three weeks of paid vacation.

— Personal emergency leave no longer only applies to workers at companies with 50 or more employees. All workers will get 10 days per year, two of them paid.

— Victims of domestic or sexual violence, or parents of children who have experienced or are threatened with it, will get five days of paid leave and 17 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave.

— Employers will not be allowed to request a sick note from an employee taking personal emergency leave.

— Parents whose children die will get unpaid leave of up to 104 weeks. It was previously only offered to parents when a child’s death was related to a crime.

— Employers must pay three hours of wages if they cancel a shift with fewer than 48 hours notice, with weather-dependent work exempted.

— Employees can refuse shifts without repercussion if the employer gives them less than four days notice.

— Employees on call must be paid three hours at their regular pay rate.

— Companies that misclassify workers as “independent contractors” instead of employees in order to skirt labour law obligations would be subject to fines.

— The maximum fine for employers who violate employment standards laws will be increased from $250, $500 and $1,000 for various violations to $350, $700 and $1,500. The government will publish the names of those who are fined.

And, remember this doesn’t include the additional organizing protections workers have received of the increase in the minimum wage in Ontario, Canada, now fast tracked to January 1, 2019 at $15.00 per hour.  Some might ask, who needs a union though once these protections are in place?

One answer might be:  To get these protections and more, and to keep them as governments come and go.  The other answer though is that without representation and collective organization, many of these new rights will be unknown and therefore unrealized by workers.  There will always be more employers, through ignore or design, who will ignore workers’ rights, and too few government enforcers to make them toe the line, which means representation on the job and collective action will become even more important now in moving these new legal obligations into the permanent culture of work and daily expectation of all workers.

The other huge opportunity would seem to be in organizing informal workers who are largely out of the reach of traditional union organizing.  With this package of new laws in Ontario, a rights-based workers association is desperately needed to allow workers to access these provisions and convert them into permanent entitlements.

There’s a loud whistle blowing, I hope a lot of organizations hear it and move to the sound.