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Last week, Global leaders, corporate titans and aid workers gathered in Brazil for the UN Sustainable Development Conference (Rio+20). The discussion centered on jobs, energy, cities, food, water, oceans and disasters. While it’s heartening to know that within each of these categories some attention was given to substandard housing, the issue clearly deserved greater room at the table, given its profound impact on many of these areas on the agenda. Tackling substandard housing helps to make all those things possible.

Shelter is acknowledged as a basic human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is a fundamental catalyst in breaking the cycle of poverty. Living in a decent home means improved health for the entire family; children doing better at school and increased livelihood opportunities for parents. At Habitat for Humanity, we are witness to this transformational impact on families and individuals on daily basis.

An example of this “social sustainability”, and how Habitat for Humanity is successfully involved in the process, is the Varjada Project in Brazil.  By involving Varjada community leaders in decision-making, Habitat learned that, despite other suggested priorities, potable water was the most urgent communal need. The community as a whole understood the connection; water was significant not only for individual quality of life, but also for the women who invested many hours of their day gathering water from long distances—and therefore, vital to the sustainability of the entire community. 

Why the connection? Once the water issue was addressed, the women began to invest more time in other activities, such as the production and sale of handmade crafts. This, in turn, allowed families to increase their income and improve the quality of their housing, develop professionally, invest more in their children’s education and experience a higher level of self-esteem. Furthermore, through the marketing of their handmade goods, the women in the community organized into an association, through which they continue to push the overall improvement and development of the community.
 
This shows how housing-related solutions—potable water, safer structures, healthier bathrooms, and more—contributes to the long-term sustainability of communities  if human and social dynamics are taken into account. Similar stories relate to increasing employment opportunities and improving health. Addressing social needs, of which adequate housing is one, leads to greater health. This is as true in developed countries as it is in developing nations. A recent survey of physicians in the U.S. showed that 43 percent wished they could write prescriptions for housing assistance, as this would lead to improved health.

We can only begin to contemplate a sustainable future if the issue of substandard housing is elevated and given its due recognition – it’s the lynchpin on which so much else rests.

The relatively simple act of building a safe and decent home increases life chances. To tackle poverty housing on its massive scale takes bringing governments, the private sector and civil society together to find solutions. Rio+20 is one platform where this can happen, but with limited attention devoted to housing, it’s an opportunity missed.

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