At the end of 2020, World Habitat presented its very first Outstanding Contribution to Housing Award to the Latin American youth-led organisation, TECHO. Elena Garcia and Ed Melia look at TECHO’s inspirational work across 18 countries and illustrate exactly why they are the first winners of this new award.
Katerine was born 31 years ago in Manizales, Colombia. She currently works in the health sector in Bogotá and, over the last five years, has worked in various roles related to gender equality, vulnerable populations, social studies and public politics analysis. She studied political science with a Master’s in Public Policy and completed both degrees with full scholarships. Her life before this, however, was very different.
She grew up with her six siblings in a low-income neighbourhood which was occupied by gangs who killed children and teenagers. Many of her neighbours and school-friends were mothers at 13, 14 and 15 years old. She lived in a violent home marked by verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Drugs also had a serious impact on one of her brothers.
“Between 2001 and 2007, we got to know extreme poverty first-hand – nine of us living in a 170-square-feet room, with informal connection to electricity and without water or plumbing. This involved going to the toilet in the bushes and fetching water for cooking, bathing and washing clothes.”
In those six years, they lost their home three times due to damage caused by disasters, largely because the roof was made of plastic, broken cans and sticks, and the walls were made of wood, mats and cardboard. On one occasion, their house collapsed and it almost killed Katerine and her grandmother.
“Extreme poverty does not just mean material shortcomings – it affects human dignity. Our precarious situation caused my family to give my younger sister up for adoption at two years old. Poverty led to sexual abuse towards me and my sisters – enabled by overcrowding. Poverty meant my mother was forced into begging and prostitution for over 20 years in order to feed us.”
It was at this point that Katerine came across TECHO and – as it has done for countless other people across Latin America and the Caribbean – her life began to transform.
From its beginnings as a single project in Chile in 1997, TECHO is now the largest housing organisation in Latin America. Its achievements are staggering. They are now working in 18 countries, have built over 135,000 homes, and have carried out over 700 infrastructure projects in more than 600 communities, with the support of over one million volunteers. All achieved in less than 25 years.
For World Habitat, what is impressive about TECHO is how they represent a combination of scale, transferability and adaptation to multiple contexts and environments. Not only have they undertaken so much visible work, but they have also succeeded in influencing housing policies across the wide, diverse and ever-changing political spectrum of Latin America. Part of their success stems from the operational independence each country-team is given, which allows TECHO to be effective in countries as diverse as Haiti and Uruguay.
But it is also their ability to inspire and motivate local communities which is equally impressive.
“TECHO has achieved a tremendous impact, not only in housing provision, but also in involving young people in finding solutions for housing problems across Latin America”, says Mariana Gallo, Programme Lead (for Awards) at World Habitat. “Having worked with over one million volunteers illustrates their incredible capacity to engage and motivate people, creating a sense of solidarity and bringing communities behind one, single, unifying purpose.”
Its origins are evidence of how great ideas can develop. It was a group of young university students, led by a Jesuit priest named Felipe Berríos, in Southern Chile 23 years ago, who began to provide emergency housing for families living in extreme poverty. Their work grew in Chile over the years, involving larger and more permanent interventions. Not content with the impact they were having there, they took their approach to, first, El Salvador and Peru, under the name ‘Un Techo para mi País’ (‘A roof for my country’) and have continued to expand exponentially across the region.
Their initial model of emergency housing provision has since evolved to include a focus on strengthening community capacities as well as improving living conditions. Often, this means restoring entire communities from the devastation of earthquakes and other disasters while providing them with dignity away from the rampant insecurity of living in informal settlements – a particularly challenging issue across Latin America, the most unequal region in the world.
In fact, almost one-in-five (17%) people, a total of 114 million people, live in informal settlements in Latin America – and around one out of every four people living in all urban areas.
TECHO’s engagement with people and organisations across society – from governments to young volunteers – in a wide variety of contexts has been enormously successful.
During a Citizen Summit in Mexico in 2018, when Andrés Manuel López Obrador was a presidential candidate – he is now President of the Republic – he was persuaded by TECHO and the community to commit to carrying out a National Census on Settlements. And in Argentina, information gathered through networking by various organisations, including TECHO, influenced the government to develop new legislation which has regulated property titles, suspended evictions and provided infrastructure and basic services in informal settlements.
In Brazil, TECHO worked with Favela Souza Ramos, which involved a legal process for residents to avoid eviction and taking the steps to acquire the land titles of the plots they occupied. In Chile, they run a social/permanent housing programme, where the community committee acquires the land and become owners of the plot where the future houses will be built.
TECHO is also part of multiple networks, including the Urban Housing Practitioners Hub, a platform that brings together more than 40 housing and urban planning experts from across Latin America.
Social awareness and community action
Across all countries, TECHO brings together volunteers and residents. What happens depends on local priorities but often includes improving access to education, services and community infrastructure, and taking part in policy debates at local, national and international level.
Over one million people have volunteered for TECHO. Many of those who have previously benefited from TECHO’s work have gone on to become volunteers, and equally, many volunteers have gone on to become staff members. Volunteers are an extremely effective way of bringing the ‘housing issue’ into the public agenda, by involving young people from all sectors in contributing to solving the housing challenges of people living in poverty.
Julissa Rivera, a TECHO volunteer from El Salvador, said:
“I chose to volunteer for TECHO because I was struck by the contact that the organisation has with communities, the way they work together with families, the fact that they not only build houses, but also work on other aspects – social aspects, improving quality of life for families. And how TECHO give young people the opportunity to be able to contribute their knowledge and learn.
“As a volunteer, I currently have the role of projects and logistics supervisor. I support the organisation of construction, as well as carrying out specific projects. I monitor Housing and Habitat projects from planning to execution and completion.
“Of all the things I have learned, I like the way my interpersonal relationships have improved – the way in which we communicate with families, to build horizontal relationships where the work is not help, but support in working together. That is something that I have taken to the world of work and it’s very satisfying to know that this is something that I learnt at TECHO.”
Julissa also appreciates the insight and perspective that volunteering has given her, into how others live:
“TECHO has made me much more conscious of the reality in which many families live – realities that are not so far from mine, since many of us continue fighting for essential rights that have been violated. But families in settlements have a much more extensive and intense fight than us volunteers. I have learnt to recognise my privileges and turn my outrage into action.
“Although we are in the same place, demographically speaking, it doesn’t mean that we all have the same rights and opportunities. And as citizens we must fight for everyone to be able to have the same resources and access to opportunities.”
Alongside volunteers, residents also assist in building their homes. The construction systems need to be simple to allow both volunteers and families to take part in the process – in some cases, however, skilled labour is required for more complex construction. They are also adapted to local techniques – for example, the new housing model in Haiti, ‘Crosses of San Andrés’, prioritises local origin of materials and earthquake and hurricane resistance.
Fábrica Social (FS – Social Factory) is a social enterprise initiated by TECHO Argentina, which has – since establishing two production centres in 2012 – reduced housing costs by 10 per cent. It provides permanent employment for residents of informal settlements and improves the quality of the products through feedback from users. Fábrica Social works with TECHO’s research and development team in Argentina to provide solutions adapted to both the needs of communities and the standards and regulations of the National Housing Secretariat. This is now in operation in at least two other countries.
In Argentina, TECHO and Fábrica Social also developed a process where recycled ecological plates (ECOPLAK) can be used as external cladding. This is based on tetra pack, which is waterproof, has good thermal performance and acoustic insulation of up to 70 per cent. It has the lowest rate of environmental contamination, is resistant to micro-organisms and is fire retardant. To date, 1,000 tons of discarded plastic and cellulose materials have been used for social housing and there is potential to use 8,000 tons per year. In addition, it is estimated that each house replaces 800kg of wood with recycled material. Adidas, SC Johnson and Colgate all donate material for recycling and this process is supported by Instituto Argentino del Envase (IAE – Argentine Institute of Packaging).
However, homes are still mainly made of wood, which – if it is from sustainable forests – has a low ecological footprint. Each project is asked to ensure their suppliers comply with legal and technical regulations for the sale of wood. Where possible, the wood is FSC certified. Some projects also focus on improved use of resources, especially water, for example in the installation of dry toilets, capturing rainwater, or to treat it to turn it into clean water.
There are plans to set up similar Fábrica Social initiatives in Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Paraguay.
COVID-19 has illustrated that those living in informal settlements are highly vulnerable. TECHO has increased its emergency response to support a further 519 communities, distributing food and hygiene items in agreement with local restrictions to address urgent needs. In 2020 alone, 1,031,940 people were reached.
Local teams provided verified information to communities, to support prevention efforts as well as help residents access support provided by local governments.
Outstanding Contribution Award
David Ireland, Chief Executive of World Habitat, is clear as to why TECHO are the first organisation to receive an Outstanding Contribution to Housing Award.
“World Habitat awards the best housing and then help to transfer those solutions to the people and communities who need them most. TECHO have consistently developed great housing and have been uniquely effective in transferring the results to many thousands of families and communities across a whole continent. They are an inspiration to organisations around the world – illustrating that it is possible to make widescale transformational change to improve the lives of people in urgent housing need.”
And it is not just the scale of TECHO’s work that is so impressive. Millions of individuals, who they have helped and given the security of a home, have had their lives transformed. Katerine’s story is just one example.
When Katerine met TECHO
In 2007, Katerine first met TECHO, and then in just over three days in October of that year, TECHO built their first house in her home city of Manizales.
“It was my home. Those were days full of excitement and hope because this house gave us back the human dignity that we had lost. It meant a lot to be part of the construction of our house, to see how we put each foundation post and tile, and to visualise what our life would be in this new home.
“TECHO’s houses are transitional homes. However, for us it meant more than that. It meant embracing a proper and dignified home for the first time. It allowed more family unity and confidence, and to leave sexual abuse behind. TECHO housing meant being able to say, ‘yes we can’.”
For Katerine, TECHO’s support was life-changing. It meant having a proper home and no longer having to live in a small and crowded space. She was able to focus on her education, begin achieving her ambitions and to do the vital work that she is doing today in Colombia’s health sector.
“[The home] gave us hope again, an opportunity to improve the quality of our lives. Having an adequate place to study gave us the opportunity to pursue our dreams. You can keep on dreaming, there is always an opportunity to keep moving forward. Being able to sleep peacefully while raining, not having to use a plastic cover to protect us from the rain that leaked through the roof – it was the beginning of the reconstruction of our home, as a family.”
Our thanks to Carol Solórzano and Juan Pablo Duhalde from TECHO for their assistance in writing this feature.