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BuildLouder - Advocacy work in Costa Rica

At the beginning of 2011, Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity led a BuildLouder trip to Costa Rica. Not only did the group help build a Habitat home, but they also visited with local Habitat staff, elected officials, and NGOs. They toured homes, visited neighborhoods, and learned about the affordable housing issues that face the residents of Costa Rica. Read the following entries from various participants on the trip to find out more about their experience. BuildLouder is a special Global program to advocate for affordable housing internationally. If you'd like to learn more about what we are doing to advocate for affordable housing in the Twin Cities, please visit http://www.tchabitat.org/advocate.


Our Trip Starts January 15!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

To prepare for our first ever BuildLouder trip at Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity and our inaugural trip to one of our tithing countries, I have been studying the history and culture of Costa Rica. I’ve previously traveled to Honduras and Guatemala on similar trips, and I was expecting to have a similar experience in Costa Rica. After a quick reconnaissance trip in November to visit the area that our team will travel to in just a few short days, I was surprised to experience a vastly different landscape than I anticipated both physically and politically.

Costa Rica is a democracy with a growing economy, a very clean countryside and an enormous tourism industry. When I arrived I was surprised to find that people on the street looked just like me and the only notable difference was the language that they spoke (much more fluently than me!). Upon first arriving, I observed a laid-back style of people who didn’t seem to have a worry. Though refreshing, I was initially concerned that the kind of advocacy trip I was looking to lead might be difficult, so I had to investigate further.

After meeting with the Habitat for Humanity Costa Rica affiliate and the country coordinators, I learned about a much different view. Though perhaps less obvious to the casual observers, there is a situation of severe poverty in Costa Rica. There are hundreds of thousands of people affected by a cost barrier to affordable land as well as a lack of Land Tenure. I visited informal settlements and slums that could easily compare to some of the worst in the world. Just beyond the cover of the beautiful rainforest and the carefully crafted tourist resorts, there are families of poor immigrants fleeing neighboring countries because of political turmoil in make-shift shacks, clinging to slippery hillsides that are vulnerable to mudslides and volcanic eruptions.

In the coming days, a group of 12 volunteers, staff, advocates and elected officials will visit the slums and hear about what the conditions are like from the people that are living there and learn about what is needed to provide dignified shelters for families in need. We will also visit with non-government organizations and government offices about Costa Rica’s social housing issues. We will learn what we can do as dedicated volunteers and advocates to make a tangible difference in the lives of the world’s poor, and we’ll work towards our goal of ending poverty housing.

Follow us over the next two weeks as we experience and learn together about the situation in Costa Rica, spend time building with a local family and meet with officials.

Trista Matascastillo, Community Relations Senior Associate


The Journey in Costa Rica Begins

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Our group gathered early this morning to begin a journey of learning. We boarded the bus that took us to the informal settlement of Guarari in Costa Rica’s Heredia Provence. When we arrived we were greeted by a group of community members who represent the 1700 families living there. They filled a community center that also doubled as the Pentecostal Church.

We sat around a table with the community members who told us about their wretched living conditions (ie no sewage system and unhealthy living quarters) and the promises they had received from the government, which remained unfulfilled. Perhaps what struck us the most is that even though their situation is beyond what we could ever imagine ourselves living in, they were proud and they were full of hope. The people of this community are poor, because the system is such that it is nearly impossible to navigate and lift them out of this extreme poverty.

We learned that 80% of the residents were immigrants from Nicaragua who had fled even poorer conditions in hopes for a better life of opportunity and security. Instead, they found themselves stuck in a system of unfulfilled promises, poor salaries and poor living conditions. The two greatest issues we learned while touring the area is that there is a lack of secure land tenure along and a massive migration to the urban area.

The lack of secure tenure means that there is no right to the land that the people are living on. In Costa Rica the cost of land is incredibly high, even by US standards, so settlers, immigrants and poor people are unable to afford the land. The government has been building homes known as “the projects” on the same area that the informal settlement exists, but even still the inhabitants of these government projects have no rights to the land. This means that if the “owner” of the home passes away, the family will find itself evicted from the home.

The issue of increasing urbanization is also a very difficult one. Large numbers of people are moving to the city areas to find work, and have access to jobs, schools and medical facilities. These informal settlements are becoming more and more crowded, and the area simply cannot sustain a population of this size. Resources become scarce, crime rates rise, and health conditions quickly deteriorate

The group discussed what we saw during our evening reflection time, and we were struck by how the people we met, who were living in grave situations, were still filled with hope and dignity. They know that they deserve to have a decent, dignified home and that they need to do something about their situation. They simply need some assistance to leverage assets to get through the red tape to continue to formalize there settlement. We each felt that we could learn from the people of Guarari, and appreciate what we have, and yet not accept these conditions. They have moved us to advocate for change.

Trista Matascastillo,
Team Leader, Community Relations Senior Associate


Building and Visiting Neighborhoods in Costa Rica

Monday, January 17, 2011
Our Habitat BuildLouder group had another very accomplished day. This is our third day on our trip and I already feel as though my trip as been worth while. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the week will bring. Yesterday we had a great experience when we went to an informal settlement in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. Today we had another great opportunity to visit a small rural town, where we began building a Habitat home. Both places had extreme poverty but also extreme spirit. The people in each of these places are survivors and have done, and will continue to do, the best they can in the situation they have been given.

The two main things that I’ve been taking into great observation have been the people and the housing structures. I have realized that the people in a community are more important than I ever thought. My educational background is in community development, and I have always been fascinated by what community really means. I feel now, that I better understand what it does mean: a vast support system of people with social, physical and economic needs.

What I saw in these communities was how proud each person was of the system they did have. They are filled with hope, even in the poorest of situations. This is what I felt in my soul. I felt the people’s joy in their smiles, and when they showed me their homes. Even if their homes were nothing more than a shack on land they did not own, they still took pride and ownership in what they did have.

To discover Habitat’s impact in the community, we toured examples of before-and-after living situations for families receiving Habitat homes. I had the opportunity to see the current living conditions of a family who had just been chosen for a Habitat home. They lived in a one-room shanty with a make-shift kitchen, bathroom and living room all in one. The future Habitat homeowner, her husband, and their five children were all living in this tiny space. Despite it being hot and cramped, the woman welcomed me into her house, and she was proud to have me there. She was so grateful for our presence, and for the work Habitat is doing for her family.

Next, I visited with a Habitat family that had already moved into their new Habitat home. It was a two bedroom modest, but nice shelter. It was a huge improvement for them, now having concrete floors, doors and windows to keep the elements and wildlife out of their home. The family was so proud and welcoming of their new home. They have a child who is disabled, and this new home is a great gift for her. This child is known in the community, and I can see why. Her smile truly lit up the room. Even with struggles, the human spirit can soar above and be like an angel. This child was an angel.

The lessons I will take back are the welcoming kindness of the people who didn’t have a lot to offer, but their blessings were many. The support of community is so very important and I am going to try and make more of an effort to get to know my neighbors. Support systems are a powerful connection and a way to bring light to a very dark place. These people are the light, and now they need a well lit place to live. Light attracts light. Let’s all be the light for each other.

As seen through my eyes.
Katie Anderson,
Team Member, Community Relations Intern


Why a BuildLouder Trip?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Throughout the trip each of us has been asked a couple of times, “Why did you choose a BuildLouder trip?” and today it really resonated with me. This was our second build day, and we dug a bunch of holes for the setting of the cement posts that will hold the house up. We spent the morning working on digging 31 three-foot deep holes, and in the afternoon we had a little party where we celebrated with the two Habitat families we have been working with throughout the last few days. The family that will be moving into the home that we were working on taught us how to make black bean empanadas, and we shared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the family.

This day really illustrated to me why I chose a BuildLouder trip. To me Habitat is not just about bricks and mortar. We are about people – empowering them to make a positive change in their lives and providing them access to the resources they need to make that change. It’s not just about building a house – and that’s why I chose this trip.

When I first joined this trip, I wasn’t sure what we’d be doing, but it has become clear to me that we are here to develop relationships with the Costa Rican affiliate, the families they are serving, local NGO’s and government representatives. But what seems to be the most important piece are the relationships we build with the communities for which we are advocating.

Even though we’ve spent only a bit of time physically building a home – we have built a lot through the things we have seen, the stories we have heard and the doors we hope to open.

When I think about my work in Family Services at Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, it isn’t just about houses to me – it’s about the families. To me it’s about providing hope and having faith that we will be able to provide an avenue for a family to achieve their dreams. It is the same in Costa Rica.

Every person has the right to stable, healthy and affordable housing. No matter who you are, what experiences you have or where you come from. That’s what this trip is about to me.

Cristen Porter
Team Member, Homeowner Training & Engagement Liaison


R& R Day!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Today was our day of R & R – Rejoice and Recharge!

Still in La Fortuna, our plans were to sleep in a little later and fill our day with zip lining, hiking the Arenal Volcano, taking a tour of the alligator and butterfly gardens and lounging in the hot springs. These are all things a tourist would do while vacationing in this area of Costa Rica.

Zip lining was our first activity with 13 lines of cable strung high above the ground and through the canopy of tree tops. We were geared up in a helmet, leather braking glove (just one) and an attractive harness which strapped very snuggly around your waist and each leg. We were given the order not to touch anything that had been put on us and then given instruction on how to zip line and told what could happen if we did not follow those instructions. I’ve never listened so carefully in my life at being told how and what to do when.

When it was our individual turn, we were hooked to a cable, feet crossed, head to the left, leaning back, with one hand stretched behind and told to break at the end. Exhilarating!

Cristen loved the zipping from the start with an Indiana Jones-like gusto! Wesley and David were sturdy and strong gliding to each platform with grace. Katie had the look of concentration coming in for perfect landings. Peggy was fearless once she emphasized to our guides that for her to fully understand the procedure prior to take off was non-negotiable. Ryan was “the crazy one!" After our first line he took the next one with a guide, and holding his arms straight out, his face forward, he flew like a giant happy bird!

Trista was as she has been all week, our leader. Even though jumping from a platform to ride a cable at what seemed like thousands of feet above the ground was not her first choice, she was there to support us. After a few lines she had “checked the box” and was done. As a great leader, Trista supported us on the zipline as long as she could, and let us fly on our own the rest of the way. We are a very fortunate team with a very good leader.

Once back on the ground we rejoiced in our individual accomplishments and that of our leader and teammates – our friends. We decided there would be no hiking and that the alligators and butterflies would be fine without us, so we headed for the hot springs and cold pool, each complimented with a waterslide. The waterslide would be better called a track for body bobsledding. It was amazing! We all laughed so loud and hard from our guts as if a dam had broken open with a joyful blast, and our energy was instantly recharged!

We boarded our bus to San Jose and left La Fortuna filled up and ready for our next three days of business. So far this trip I’ve learned much about Habitat for Humanity, BuildLouder, advocacy, housing, land tenure and Costa Rica; but today was about learning that wherever we come from we have more strength as a team than we could ever have as one…..and it’s just more fun to laugh and play with your friends.

It was a good Rejoice and Recharge day!

Debbie Campbell
Team Member, Volunteer


Meetings with Elected Officials and NGOS

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Today began the first leg of two days of meeting with elected officials and NGOs. Our morning meeting was with Juan De Dios Rojas, General Manager of BANHVI, which is the largest housing bank in Costa Rica that provides housing subsidies to needy families in the country. Mr. Rojas talked at length about the pressing issues facing his office in trying to provide adequate subsidies to help alleviate the problem of housing the influx of Nicaraguan immigrants. He reported that his agency has provided over $300,000 in subsidies to families through 19 authorized organizations. It impressed me that given the chronic nature of the problem, this is woefully insufficient. As we continue with our meetings, I will research that issue further. That being said, one in four families is receiving subsidies, and most of them are Nicaraguan immigrants. My general impression of Mr. Rojas was that of a polite efficient bureaucrat whose approach to the immigrant housing issue was more of bureaucratic exactitude and less objective out of the box thinking. Perhaps that’s unfair on my part as this is an issue that is highly complex and every bit as controversial.

Our luncheon meeting was with Jose Manuel Ulate, Mayor of Heredia, who was recently elected to his post. He was very passionate and opinionated about the issue of immigration and the strain it has put on housing and other services supported by the local and national government. He expressed a willingness to put the full force of his administration behind constructive solutions to the issue. He was very adamant however that the immigrants had to be deliberate in their attempt to lift themselves out of their predicament without depending on unfettered assistance from the government. His feeling was that the government’s subsidies were created an entitlement attitude in the immigrant population. He went on to say that continued unrestricted access would only make matters worse. Is this true? On some level perhaps, but the visit to the Precario or the slums showed a community that was organizing itself, subsisting with very little cash resources. What they didn’t have in financial assets they compensated with social capital, refusing to capitulate to the harsh reality of their existence.

I was one of a few privileged to meet the Second Vice President of Costa Rica, Luis Lieberman. It was certainly an honor to be able to meet such a high official. Habitat’s ability to access this level of power and influence is what makes the BuildLouder trips powerful and beneficial to the cause of creating affordable housing and alleviating poverty wherever its sites are located. Even though the Vice President’s portfolio was not housing, he was well versed on the issues that needed to be addressed. He was confident that with partnerships that the government was building, that they would be able to make some progress toward the issue. I advised the Vice President that Twin Cities Habitat had adopted Costa Rica as a tithing partner and has donated funds to the local Habitat affiliate as part of a four-year commitment. The Vice President is grateful to Habitat for its willingness to lend its support to their effort of creating decent housing in his country.

All in all a very busy yet informative day, I look forward to our meetings tomorrow.

Wesley Walker,
Team Member, Twin Cities Habitat Board Member


Meetings with Habitat Staff and NGO Partners

Friday, January 21, 2011

Today we were joined by two notable guests. First was Elizabeth Blake, Senior Vice President of Advocacy/Government Affairs and General Counsel for Habitat for Humanity International. The other was Habitat for Humanity International Board Member Alex Silva, Founder and President of Omtrix, Inc. Mr. Silva is an expert in micro lending markets and was able to offer key advice as we negotiated questions in housing finance.

Our group started off the day by meeting with Irene Campos, Ministra de Vivienda. Ms. Campos is the Costa Rican Minister of Housing, and offered much insight about how Habitat’s efforts have, and can, alleviate the housing need in Costa Rica. Like other officials we have met, Ms. Campos stressed that government subsidy for housing is, in all cases where possible, linked to land title rights for homeowners. She also understood the need for supportive housing service in addition to the bricks and mortar of initial construction. But not all services were available to the people in the informal settlements that we saw, as she is not allowed to offer any such help to undocumented workers.

Our next meeting was with Juan Jose Umana, Fundacion Costa Rica Canada, one of the nineteen organizations that receive housing funds and work with families. Mr. Umana provided a level of detail on NGO housing finance that we had not yet seen. His depth of knowledge and familiarity with the programs answered some of the team’s lingering questions, like at which levels of income a family can expect a federal housing subsidy to kick in ($400/month), and where it phases out ($2500/month, with a minimum of four sources of income). The interest rates on a family’s mortgage balance, he explained, hover around 15%. This is tied to Costa Rica’s high inflation rate, which is influenced by a high rate of foreign money flowing into the country. Mr. Umana also gave a brief explanation of Finanvivienda, a partnership of member organizations, one of which is Habitat for Humanity Costa Rica, and had a mission similar to Minnesota Housing Partnership. We ended our morning with a lunch at Almuerzo Ruisenor Alameda, where people had amazing lunches, including Katie and I, who ordered some of the best Chicken Cordon Bleu south of the border.

That afternoon we traveled to FUPROVI, another of the nineteen NGO agencies that uses government housing money and turns it into homes for families. We had an expert presentation by Veronica Fonseca, and were later joined by Carmen Gonzales, Gerenta de Desarrollo e Investigacion. What makes FUPROVI unique is its building methods. The entire community works on every house. No family member knows if the house on which he/she is working will be the house where they will live.

Before dinner, we met with Alvaro Gonzalez, of Costarriceenses Solidarios Pro-Vivienda Digna. Mr. Alvaro advocates private for sector participation in the housing solution, suggesting that corporations can help their own employees by contributing resources to housing deficiencies in their own communities. He believes it is an exercise in corporate responsibility. Mr. Gonzales pointed out that if you are poor but don’t own land, you have little chance of receiving a government housing subsidy, unless you are very poor. He hopes his efforts can close that gap.

Our group was privileged to end the day by having dinner at Cena Ram Luna, a restaurant on the hillside with one of the best views of nighttime San Jose. We talked of our trip memories, the people we met and the places we saw. You can’t help but be changed by learning from people who need the help you can provide.

John Lesch,
Team Member, MN State Representative


BuildLouder Trip - A Week Later

Monday, January 31, 2011

One week ago today our group faced our first day back to work in snowy Minnesota after our amazing journey in Costa Rica. Over the past week I have received numerous cards and emails from the group talking about their individual experiences and sharing their common feeling of being overwhelmed by the journey that will forever change their lives.

Now that we have all since reintegrated back into our own busy lives, getting through our emails and catching up on laundry, the question remains: what are we going to do about it? Does the energy and the passion that was set on fire last week continue, or do we just move on?

I am happy to report that a week later this group is still dedicated to continuing to bring light to the issues of land tenure and social housing, and they anxiously await every opportunity to share their experience with others, continuing to BuildLouder!

Here is what the group is doing, and I would like to encourage you to consider joining us.

1. Speaking about their experience. You can invite the BuildLouder participants, as a whole or individually, to present to your organization about what we learned, what we experienced and how you too can get involved. Advocate@tchabitat.org

2. Staying in touch with Advocacy issues. You can register today as an online Advocate with Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity and Habitat for Humanity International.

3. Participating in the upcoming Immersion Retreat, March 13th. Habitat Immersion Retreats are designed to help concerned citizens get an in depth understanding of the local housing crisis and explore creative solutions. Sign up today, and you will be immersed in the daily housing challenges faced by people living in poverty, by visiting Twin Cities’ shelters, affordable rental and homeownership providers and talking directly with people experiencing these issues first hand. And you’ll participate in various solutions such as helping to build a Habitat house and visiting the State Capitol. Our goal is that you leave the retreat with motivation and hope, armed with the skills to make a difference.

View more photos from our trip on our Flickr Photo Set.

Trista Matascastillo,
Team Leader, Community Relations Senior Associate

matt haugen

matt haugen

Matt Haugen has been collecting and sharing the great stories of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity as Communications Manager since 2010. He earned his undergraduate and master’s degree from Northwestern University before spending ten years writing for TV news in the Twin Cities. He’s passionate about convincing people when he’s right on things, and being educated about it when he’s not.

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