Rick Hathaway, Habitat for Humanity’s vice president for the Asia-Pacific. Photo by: Habitat for Humanity

BANGKOK — When Rick Hathaway arrived in Asia in 1993, his first stop was Korea. The country was facing significant housing needs and Habitat for Humanity International’s work was cut out for it. Hathaway, who is now the organization’s vice president for the Asia-Pacific says that things are changing in the region.

Today, houses in Korea have surpassed the number of households: 15.9 million housing units against 13.4 million households in 2014 — a "household" refers to the group of people living together, while "housing unit" refers to the physical housing structure. But homeownership remains a challenge for many, particularly the young and old. The issue: it’s too expensive.

But that’s not unique to Korea. In many places across the Asia-Pacific region, urban migration and the rising cost of land have raised the price of houses, making it more difficult for the new and next generations to own a home, Hathaway said.

Apart from affordability, what are the other emerging challenges Habitat for Humanity is seeing in the region? How is the organization changing to meet these realities? Does aid still have a role to play in the housing sector?

Devex spoke to Hathaway at the sidelines of the 7th Asia-Pacific Housing Forum in Bangkok to learn more.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You mentioned affordability as one of the outstanding issues at the moment. Are there other emerging new challenges that you're seeing?

Urbanization is a big one. It does fit with the affordability [issue]. But I think the big challenge or opportunity is how land is often controlled by the government. They play a role in how land is used. And I think there's a great opportunity to do some more extensive land use planning that addresses transportation systems, such that people can have land available that they can afford a house on, but also have access to employment.

And so I think it's really incumbent upon governments to really look at more detailed urban planning that is focused on meeting the needs of the entire workforce. And especially those that will have challenges affording it — whether it's having a more developed rental market, making sure that land is used for transport, where the businesses are, where the housing should be.

Land is a precious resource and there's only so much of it, so it's really important that it be planned out well.

Over the past five to 10 years, you've had the Terwilliger Center and the MicroBuild Fund accelerator programs. How do all of these describe how funding has changed in the housing sector?

The good thing is I think there is now a realization — that might not be new — is that charitable giving, even corporate CSR, is great. But it won't meet the total need. It'll help to maybe catalyze prototypes and new innovations.

But it really is going to be the market that's going to be the ultimate provider. And this is a great opportunity for that. I think at the housing forum, we're seeing some real innovators on the for-profit side taking risks, working closely with government to build substantial amounts of shelter.

How much role does aid still play in the housing sector?

Aid that's used to help governments, institutions, and NGOs to make good decisions is good. It needs to be strategic, not transactional, which I think is more the case. And it's really important that it be used to catalyze new ideas and to make sure that it's done in a way where government and corporations are a part of the process.

So I think being more strategic than transactional is really the best aid. You know, where does that investment lead to? The investment itself will do good work, but does it lead to catalytic change, which allows that growth to happen and interventions to happen?

One of the running themes in this forum is public-private partnerships. There's a lot of private sector in the forum talking about the work that they're doing in this space. But there seems to also be that challenge or that frustration emerging from working with governments. What role do you see Habitat playing in that space?

Government is such a key. I was talking to a couple of government officials from Nepal. And you know, Kathmandu had been built over [many] years in different ways. So with the earthquake and buildings that need to be either taken down and replaced, it's not clear who owns the land. The documentation isn't in place. And it's so critical for government to help sort that out. It's not easy. But a group like Habitat needs government to take ownership of how land is managed.

In Negros Occidental in the Philippines, [we have] a coalition that includes government developers, microfinance organizations, NGOs, professional organizations to really look at how can a coalition work together to create good land use planning.

Building a house is actually the easy part. [But] where it is, what land it's on, who owns the land, the services, schools, transportation, that needs everybody to participate.

It's hard in government because even within government you have changes, and you have different departments. It takes a certain amount of will in government from the leaders, and that's in place in some places, but not everywhere.

There are themes here such as urban migration, and how it's not just about building houses, but also making sure that neighborhoods are livable and safer, and have all these different important institutions around it. And there are also these different innovations happening in the space. How is Habitat innovating and changing along with these different realities?

Our strategic plan very much speaks to this that we're not here to do it all. We have certain things that we're good at, can be better at, but others have similar strengths. And our plan [is] prototyping what we do, but also how do we impact and add value to both the housing sector and society in general.

Partnerships and collaboration is overused often as a word, but I think ... the forum is a good example of the richness of how you actually can unpack a problem, talk openly, critically maybe, but really look at how do you get at making catalytic change. And so I think we've changed as an organization ... [by trying] to be a humble partner.

It's not about our brand, but trying to apply the strengths and grow those strengths, which is volunteerism, construction, engaging young people in the process, hopefully creating greater awareness, especially among young people and actually engaging them in the solutions. Those are some of the directions we think are important for us.

This is something I’ve heard throughout the forum: ‘A house is not a product but a process.’ Why do you feel the need — and I think a lot of Habitat staff as well — to repeat that phrase?

I feel like it's a reminder to us because we can look at four walls and a roof as a product. And you can easily in your office kind of focus on a house plan and a building block and its roof tile. But when you visit a site, you realize that ... that house doesn't become a home unless the family is successful in that home. And so in that process, which is not always easy, hopefully, they're gaining skills and an understanding of how that house becomes a home.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.