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Harvesting the Fruits of Disruption

By Rich Bell on September 12th, 2014

When my wife and I disrupted our teenage daughter’s favorite time of the week, we expected resistance. After all, asking her to volunteer for a half-Saturday at a local Habitat for Humanity building site, doing hard work for no pay with strangers, would have meant she’d miss sleeping in and the relaxed morning she craves each week. To our surprise, not only did she quickly accept the opportunity to do “real work,” but we had a particularly great time together all weekend!

Despite its risks, disruption can be a great thing. The affordable housing crisis in our cities features all the barriers, tensions and complexity of any persistent, “wicked problem.” Habitat for Humanity, however, found a way through by blowing up existing assumptions and reimagining the development and financing process with the needs of low-income families at the center. Here’s how its model addresses some of the most difficult challenges to affordable housing:

1. Since purchases of market-rate land and materials are too expensive, Habitat engages organizational house “sponsors,” secures donations, and forges partnerships with developers.

2. Because construction labor adds too much cost, Habitat effectively manages volunteers and provides a rewarding experience that helps recruit even more volunteers.

3. If families don’t have enough money for a regular downpayment, Habitat makes use of the assets the families do have through “sweat equity,” as well as through the significant reservoir of faith, good will and progressive commitment in churches and the larger community.

4.  Arranging a mortgage interest payment with a bank would double or triple the cost of a home, so Habitat for Humanity holds the mortgage itself, doesn’t charge interest at all, and recycles the payments into other homes.

The house my family and I worked on last weekend will sell for roughly $80,000. It will provide a very low-income family the opportunity to own a nice, three-bedroom, green-certified home in a neighborhood with a community garden and a playground, for less than the average cost of renting smaller apartments. In business for more than 30 years, our local Habitat organization joins more than 1,400 affiliates in the United States and 80 international organizations, making Habitat the largest developer of affordable housing in the world. These are the fruits of disruption!

What would it look like to reimagine health and health care in this way? How might public health departments or clinics show up differently in neighborhoods to prevent illness and lower costs? How might patients and their families transform the system instead of simply receiving services? What latent values, aspirations and social networks might be put to use by families and communities? What new structures could be game changers? Where are the bright spots anywhere in the world that could be grown? Knowing what we know now, how would we build it from scratch?

All of us are free to seek answers to these questions, to play with ideas, to test and to tweak. Foundations are partners who can help provide the space and resources to shrink the risk of disruptive change. Let’s hear some ideas!

Rich Bell

Senior Project Officer

Student of systems change and advocate of the small, slow and connected.