For discussion

October 2017

Through scientific eyes: Building homes and hope with Lake Agassiz Habitat for Humanity

Josh Hoper has served on the Lake Agassiz Habitat for Humanity board of directors for about 6 of the nearly 18 years he’s lived in Fargo. He’s a scientist at heart, having earned a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in Natural Sciences and a minor in Psychology from the University of North Dakota. His career has spanned a variety of sectors, with the most recent 17 years in the software and consulting businesses. His current business is a consulting practice whose purpose is to empower entrepreneurs to make fearless decisions through financial analysis, budget creation and review, virtual CFO services, and business coaching. He is a Director Consultant for BNI (Business Network International) of Minnesota, providing support and education for the BNI chapters in the Red River Valley. He is a facilitator for Co.Starters, an education program for entrepreneurs who want to turn their concept into a business. He’s also on the organizing team of GROUP THINK, a community conversation platform, where community members gather to hear interesting speakers talk about various topics to spur enlightened discussion in the community. Josh joined the board of directors of Lake Agassiz Habitat for Humanity in 2012 and has served as board secretary in 2013, vice president in 2014 and 2015, and president since January of 2016. In this article, Josh gives a brief overview of the Lake Agassiz Habitat for Humanity organization and how he tries to find ways to promote the importance of data to others in the organization.

 

Lake Agassiz Habitat for Humanity (LAHFH), located in the Fargo-Moorhead community, serves a number of local communities and is an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, a global, nonprofit housing organization operated on Christian principles that seeks to put God’s love into action by building homes, communities, and hope. LAHFH is dedicated to eliminating substandard housing locally and worldwide by constructing, rehabilitating, and preserving homes; by advocating for fair and just housing policies; and by providing training and access to resources to help families improve their shelter conditions. Habitat for Humanity was founded on the conviction that every man, woman, and child should have a simple, durable place to live with dignity and safety, and that decent shelter in decent communities should be a matter of conscience and action for all. We at the LAHFH partner with local businesses, churches, and volunteers to help build homes with qualifying families. Volunteers provide most of the labor, and individual and corporate donors provide money and materials to build Habitat houses. Most importantly, homeowner, “partner” families play a large role in the building of their home. The partner families invest 250 hours of labor - "sweat equity" - into building their homes and the homes of others. They also make interest-free mortgage payments which go into a fund that is used to build more houses.
With the generous support of donors and volunteers, LAHFH has made a lasting and meaningful impact in our community by helping local families realize their dreams of home-ownership and furthering Habitat’s goal of simple, decent, and affordable housing.

About Habitat for Humanity International
Founded in Americus, Georgia, USA, in 1976, Habitat for Humanity today operates around the globe and has helped build, renovate, and repair more than 600,000 decent, affordable houses sheltering more than 3 million people worldwide. 

Social good from an analytical mind
You might be in a similar position as I am in, so I wanted to share some thoughts related to social good and the use of data. Having the mind of an analytical person, I am drawn to create an understanding of projects I work on with empirical data. Data makes the world make sense to me.
I wanted to find ways to elevate the importance of data to others in our organization in a way that resonates with people who may not share my unquenchable thirst for data. I felt this was especially important as it relates to the strategic and tactical leadership of the organization. I was able to stress the importance of data in two areas: the scope of the problem we at LAHFH are trying to solve, and what would our community look like if we accomplished our mission.

The scope of our mission
As a member of the Fargo-Moorhead community, I marvel at the effort and cooperation it takes to design, coordinate and build every single house for every single partner family selected by LAHFH. I am amazed by the dedication and generosity of the LAHFH staff, volunteers, and donors and the scale and precision to which they need to collaborate to accomplish a feat as big as building a well-built house that provides a comfortable, energy efficient, and safe place for families to call their own home.
As a board member of the organization, I am grateful that the organization has partnered with the community to build homes for the past 26 years. For a single organization to coordinate the completion of over 55 home builds in six communities throughout Cass, ND and Clay, MN counties with volunteer labor and donated funds is an amazing feat.
As the board president for the past year and a half, I have often wondered to myself a few questions. How many houses would we need to build to accomplish our mission? Fifty-five homes built out of how many needed homes? If we were successful in accomplishing our ultimate mission, what would that look like?
Being in the president's chair has forced me to think of the long term objectives of our organization in less of an abstract way and more of a practical way. Do we know what the ultimate objective of our organization is? Are we making acceptable, measurable progress towards that goal? If I don't pursue the answers to these questions, who will?

"Work ourselves out of a job"
As an organization with objectives related to doing social good, we are compelled to ask ourselves what success looks like, not only in the short term, like each year, but in the long term. What social problem are we trying to solve, and what would success look like if we got to the point of actually solving that problem? If we got to that point, what would we do as an organization? Would our mission change?
As a realist, I don't think the ultimate goal will be accomplished in my tenure on the board. I don't imagine the ultimate problem will be solved in my lifetime, or in the lifetime of the next generation, or the next. Or maybe even the next one after that. But I do find it important to at least recognize the ending point of our mission being accomplished and, at least theoretically, understand what it might look like if we were to solve the big problem we've been hacking away at for the past 26 years.

Numbers that matter
Housing studies show that home ownership rates are lower in our service area than the national average. Strikingly, Fargo's home ownership rate (44%) is significantly lower than the national average (63%). Of the 15 largest cities in North Dakota, Fargo's home ownership rate is the lowest (North Dakota Compass).
Households that spend more than 30% of their household income are categorized as "cost-burdened." If they spend over 50%, they are considered "severely cost-burdened." Renters are more likely to be cost-burdened than homeowners.
Data from 2015 show that there are 15,900 renter households that are cost-burdened in the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Statistical Area out of roughly 35,000 households that rent - a rate of about 45%. The same data show 9,100 households that are homeowners are cost-burdened out of roughly 26,000 owner-occupied households - a rate of 35%. Factoring in income levels, we find 8,100 households who are renting, are cost-burdened and have household incomes between $15,000 and $30,000 (Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies).
In a normal year, LAHFH receives between 60 and 100 applications or about 1% of the 8,100 households that likely fit the initial profile of a qualified partner family. The numbers illustrate why we're driven to help as many families as we can, and that we have our work cut out for us as a community if we're ever going to accomplish our mission.
To learn more about Lake Agassiz Habitat for Humanity, visit: http://www.lakeagassizhabitat.org/

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