A few weeks ago, headlines covered former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s health while building Habitat for Humanity Homes in Canada. For the 34th year, Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter brought hundreds of volunteers to construction sites where donated materials and contributions from donors were used to build homes for low-income households.That image of volunteers coming together to build a home is what people expect from Habitat for Humanity. But some are surprised when they find out we also sponsor a US$100 million investment fund for housing microfinance that finances work around the globe. Why do we do that? Some of Habitat’s history with microfinance and markets traces back to an accidental discovery. Typically a Habitat for Humanity house comes with a zero percent home loan to the family. Nonetheless, regulations on non-profits in Egypt prevented Habitat from lending out any funds; and a microfinance institution (MFI) offered to help. So a partnership formed whereby our funding was lent to households via an MFI partnership. Soon after, the MFI began lending its own money for housing. At first Habitat did not pay much attention to this – it wasn’t our program nor was it being done with our funding, after all. But eventually we realized how powerful this was. The MFI went on to lend much more for housing than our program ever could, and competing financial institutions responded with similar products. This was the beginning of a change in the market that would result in much more widespread access to housing finance than any of our non-profit programs could have on their own. And, indeed, unmet demand for finance for housing is massive.
At BSHF we were very interested to learn about the European Microfinance Awards and really keen to hear more about some of the great practice being identified. We have been running the World Habitat Awards since 1985. In searching for and sharing the best examples, we have a lot in common with e-MFP. Our objective is to identify and highlight approaches to housing across the world which make outstanding contributions to people’s living conditions. As a minimum we believe everyone should be able to afford their home, have access to basic services, and be free from the threat of eviction or displacement. This might seem like stating the obvious, but it isn’t something that can be taken for granted. Over the years, a large range of excellent examples have been identified in the countries of the global North and the global South. From the very beginning, our focus has been not only on the identification of good housing practices but also in the sharing of knowledge and experience to others who can transfer them in their own situations. The first international peer exchange to a World Habitat Award project winner was in 1987 and the exchanges have continued ever since. Really great approaches recognise, provide and guarantee the right to safe and secure housing; treat people and the environment with dignity; and work collaboratively to get the best out of people and places. Contexts, actors and circumstances vary hugely, but everybody tackling housing faces three crucial ‘sustainability’ challenges – social, environmental and financial
Housing plays an important role in household asset building – providing both a place of protection from vulnerabilities as well as a base from which to be economically productive. Even low-income people prioritize investment in improving their living conditions. The base of the pyramid is estimated to spend over $330bn annually on shelter. The question is why we lack financing for housing? In Sub-Saharan Africa, the shortage of financing for housing is even more acute. As a result, poor and even middle-class households in pursuit of better shelter are often driven into the informal financial sector. Banks generally fail or ignore the financing of low-cost shelter, as the perceived risks and costs outweigh benefits. This problem is further accentuated by ambiguous property rights and legal precedents that constrain conventional ways of financing shelter. Thus, mortgage markets in the region remain small, providing access to only a small, elite segment of the population.
We are delighted to announce the launch of the European Microfinance Award 2017 with its €100,000 prize, this year on Microfinance for Housing, all details of which can be found on the Award website. Each year, e-MFP launches the European Microfinance Award, in conjunction with the Luxembourg Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs and the Inclusive Finance Network Luxembourg (InFiNe.lu). And like previous years with their focus on agriculture, social performance management, the environment, post-disaster and crisis contexts, or last year’s edition on Education, this year’s Award is looking for applications from financial institutions that are innovating, exploring and testing new ideas, that go beyond their core financial services, and exemplify the evolution of the microfinance sector beyond boilerplate microenterprise credit. Housing is a great example of how to do this. After the health and safety of children, there’s probably nothing more important to people everywhere than adequate housing. It is a core human need and a top investment priority for families anywhere. But 1.6 billion people live without adequate shelter. By 2030 this will have doubled and the need will be mostly in urban areas, where more than half of the world population lives today and where it is estimated that 2 billion people will be living in slums, where, almost by definition, substandard and unsafe housing is the norm.
I could not have been happier when I heard that this year the European Microfinance Platform is focusing on housing microfinance. As a microfinance specialist for the last 21 years—and the last 9 exclusively dedicated to microfinance products for housing—I have witnessed the growth potential of this sub-sector of microfinance, as well as the constraints and limitations to the expansion of housing finance portfolios, amongst which the most important include lack of adequate capital and insufficient knowledge on how to develop differentiated housing finance products. When we hear that: at least 1.6 billion of the global population lives in substandard housing; at least half of the global population—3.5 billion people—currently lives in cities; and 828 million people live in slums (according to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals), both funders and financial institutions alike should take note and pay close attention. Within these concerning figures, which only seem to move upward, an opportunity is evidenced. A good portion of the individuals denoted by these statistics have been or are served by traditional microfinance loans, which are frequently diverted towards efforts to improve housing conditions.
Financial Inclusion. Housing.
How often have you seen the two concepts appear together? If you think rarely – you’re not alone. Housing finance is that mysterious niche that crops up from time to time, but rarely makes headlines in our sector. And that’s both a conundrum and a shame. Housing is a core human need and a top investment priority for families anywhere. Whether rich or poor, housing is often the single largest capital investment these families will ever make, that is to say, it cries out for effective products to help finance it. Unsurprisingly, housing finance is a core of financial services in wealthy nations. Indeed, if you’re over 40, chances are that a home mortgage is the single largest loan that you, dear reader, ever held. And yet in the financial inclusion and microfinance sector, housing gets notoriously short shrift. Habitat for Humanity, the world’s leading NGO dedicated to housing, estimates that while 1.2 billion people need improved shelter, just 2% of microfinance portfolios are dedicated to housing.
In the framework of the 9th Convergences Forum, e-MFP organised a session on housing microfinance, a topic that, though not new (there are more than 20 years of practice in the sector), it is still rarely addressed within the financial inclusion community and the numbers are quite small, it only accounts for just 2% of MFI portfolios!
This little attention together with the fact that finance is strongly needed to support housing needs in developing countries, were the two very first things highlighted by the moderator, Daniel Rozas, e-MFP Senior Microfinance Expert, before giving the floor to the three panellists: Patrick McAllister, Senior Consultant at Habitat for Humanity & Representative of Habitat for Humanity's Center for Innovation in Shelter and Finance; Malkhaz Dzadzua, Chief Executive Officer, JSC MFO Crystal Georgia; and Sothany Chun, Chief Executive Officer, First Finance Cambodia.