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The World Habitat Awards is our yearly competition to find and celebrate the best examples we can find of how people are solving some of the world’s most challenging housing problems.

The announcement of our Winners marks the beginning of a new mission; to share and promote their amazing work.

Next week, CARE Philippines (World Habitat Award winner 2017) are holding an event, supported by us, to share their wisdom and experience in supporting self-recovery with practitioners and peers in Manila. Ahead of what promises to be an invaluable event, it’s made me reflect on how we shared the work of our other 2017 winner; Mutual Housing California.

Mutual Housing California welcomed me along with nine others to their home in Sacramento in November 2018. While learning about this outstanding organisation we spent much of our time talking about the Mutual Housing ‘secret sauce’. What is it that Mutual Housing are doing that makes them special?

Mutual Housing won the World Habitat Award in 2017 for Mutual Housing at Spring Lake, but this is only one part of their picture. They currently have a total of 17 developments which provide more than just affordable housing. Community organisers, staff and residents – who are all members of the organisation – work together to build and develop communities, offering a whole range of activities including training, leadership development, and capacity building.

We met staff and residents and all of them were effortlessly compelling and absolutely genuine advocates for the organisation and its mission. Each resident we met painted a picture of pride, satisfaction and a genuine sense of belonging to their community, and each one told us they wouldn’t be where they were if it wasn’t for Mutual Housing.

We visited Mutual Housing at the Highlands, a housing-first development (where people who have been homeless are given housing with no pre-qualifying conditions, wrap-around support and a secure tenancy).

I found it remarkable that we were sitting around a table with people who had experienced more life trauma than many of us will ever face. I would consider it an achievement simply to function after such hard times. Though they were clearly nervous about talking to ‘all these professionals’, they told us about challenges of participation and engagement, of getting involved in advocacy, of wanting to do a bit more to welcome new neighbours, we could have been sitting in the boardroom of any Housing Association anywhere.

The following day we sat in front of the glorious mural at Spring Lake. Though I’d seen the photographs, I appreciated it more in its full size, covering the wall of the community meeting room with a joyful portrayal of life for residents there.

We listened to residents reflect on how life had changed since moving to the community. A stream of ad-lib sound bites came out prompting tears, warm smiles and laughter from the group. Spring Lake was set up exclusively for agricultural workers who, despite being relied upon to produce and harvest food for much of the region and beyond, are treated by statutory housing systems with a dismissiveness bordering on contempt. Residents told us of life before Spring Lake, living in damp, infested, cramped, overpriced, insecure places. Of being frightened, isolated, ignored and alone.

Sharing and supporting one another is clearly at the heart of the Spring Lake community. People feel safe, they are healthier and they are thriving. Their children can stay in school. They share food with each other, they have a natural ease and a sense of belonging that is impossible to fake.

The sentence that sticks most in my mind came from Leticia, a resident who shared her experience with us – “it’s love. A community built on love”. Maybe that’s the secret sauce. I’m usually the first one to cringe at a cliché, but after meeting such happy people and hearing their wonderful stories, I’m sold.

Our visit coincided with the worst wildfires in the recorded history of California. The palpable haze of smoke and its weight on our lungs made me think of the people still homeless, in poor quality housing, ignored and disregarded. The world is full of people who need the secret sauce, but it gives me hope that organisations like Mutual Housing – and of course CARE Philippines – are happy to share the recipe.

Does your project have a ‘secret sauce’? Enter this year’s World Habitat Awards by 31 March for the chance to celebrate and share it.

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