The Challenge of Home

Habitat for Humanity’s task within Iowa’s changing landscape

Andrew Ballard, AIA; Board Member, Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity

As published in Iowa Architect Magazine, Fall 2018. Photo by Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity.


Habitat for Humanity seems like a natural fit for an architect, so when I landed in Iowa City a few years ago, I leapt at the chance to get involved. Growing up, I always knew which were the “Habitat Houses” in my town, and I had a vague feeling they were the site of some extraordinary kind of charity. I’m not sure I was alone in my assumptions; Habitat for Humanity is so culturally ingrained that it can be more easily recognized than understood. Now, as a board member, I am learning how the organization is more interesting, complex, and challenging than I imagined the first time I showed up to swing a hammer.

Habitat’s mission of empowerment requires an active campaign of diversification and outreach. The non-profit works in many ways: new construction, repairs, building loans, title and ownership facilitation, political advocacy, and disaster prevention and recovery. Its modus operandi is partnership, providing a channel for resources and a forum for homeownership. New owners build alongside volunteers and pay an affordable mortgage.

While single-family homes are still a broadly relevant solution, Habitat affiliates like Iowa Valley are exploring alternatives to address Iowa’s varied residential landscapes. In Iowa City, where land cost is rising, multi-family housing may prove to be a more efficient application of resources. However, complexity and upfront cost would be greater, testing the financial and operational capacity of our already lean operation. In rural areas, where need is dispersed, repairing and modifying homes for seniors and disabled residents can have the highest impact. Our Helping Hands program is broadening its outreach in Cedar, Iowa, Johnson, and Washington counties.

Expanded services requires increased resources, and we direct the lion’s share of our work toward maintaining financial viability. We host periodic fundraising events, collect proceeds from Habitat ReStore sales, and maintain a staunchly supportive network of donors, sponsors, contributors, and collaborators. However, as the community’s needs grow, we need to explore new, more flexible strategies. We’re adapting our outreach to the digital media landscape and testing ways to harness our construction expertise to direct more revenue to the lower end of our income range target.

If building projects are the fruits of the Habitat for Humanity tree, then the fruits’ seeds are its true mission. The aim is generational. Even when Habitat homeowners continue to struggle with low income and the setbacks that can accompany it, we see the next generation — the one growing up in a stable household — thriving. Benefits to the community grow from there.

I enjoy Habitat’s complex challenges for the same reasons I enjoy the breadth of architectural practice. Architects are trained to think flexibly and collaboratively; to lead, coordinate, cajole, and play the long game. Habitat for Humanity fits that bill nicely. I strongly encourage more people in our profession to get involved.