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Q&A with Allison Hay from Houston Habitat for Humanity

LISC Institute had the pleasure of speaking with Allison Hay, Executive Director of Houston Habitat for Humanity, one of the women executives leading efforts with The Harvey Home Repair Collaborative.  Allison shared more on how she and her colleagues have been able engage in a more intentional rebuild process by conjoining their respective expertise for the Houston community.

What is your role in the collaborative? What is required of other members involved?

With LISC included, our convener, there are five nonprofits that are a part of the collaborative. The four housing groups are The Tejano Center for Community Concerns, Rebuilding Together Houston, Fifth Ward CRC and Houston Habitat for Humanity. Each of us brings a different perspective to affordable housing work. We all serve different parts of the city with different missions. Hurricane Harvey’s devastation compelled each of us to pivot from our daily mission work and focus on repairing homes within the Houston area that were flooded many with as much as 4 feet. All four of us are really housing advocates so there’s a passion for a safe, sanitary and secure house that allows us to repair houses and support the work that we do normally.

From the beginning we used each other’s expertise, and were able to divide and conquer geographically. As the housing got repaired, we were able to look to each other for materials (sheetrock, shingles, etc.). We were able to use each other’s procurement items that then lowered the costs for rebuilding homes for all of us. There are a lot of those processes that we are able to learn quicker and faster from each other and as such work more efficiently.  For example, with mold remediation on wood, we learned to use a mold control solution not bleach and we all shared that information with the greater Houston community

There are organizations that wouldn’t be as willing to share the inner working of their operations for a partnership such as this. How did you go about building trust among the groups?

There’s a trust factor here because you’re putting your name with other groups. Our groups wouldn’t necessarily be seen as compatible but we realized that in order for us to address the needs of the community something had to be done. Because we are all serving different sectors of the community, we are able then to teach and learn from each other. LISC was able to put us in the room and have all of us reflect on our expertise. We have been able to share that expertise and pass that on to homeowners.

Both Fifth Ward CRC and Tejano both understand the social service aspect and how to talk to the homeowners in a way to connect them with our work and in turn share their knowledge of the homeowner concerns with us. By this we are able to not simply address the capacity of one but rather go a bit farther with other areas such as mental health or supplies like furniture and clothing. Things that we once didn’t know about we are now able to offer to the people we are working with to build their houses. This is all thanks to Fifth Ward CRC and Tejano taking the lead and showing us what wraparound services look like.

In what ways have you grown as an organization and collaboration since Year 1? In what ways have your processes streamlined as a result of your work together?

Oh, that’s very easy. At the beginning, if you can imagine each one of us, that are part of the collaborative were hit with Harvey’s devastation and we all struggled with the beginning. Whether it was convening or speaking to donors, you just don’t have enough time to do it all it right. What we did as a group and with the convener like LISC was to be able to divide and conquer. When Imelda hit, the five of us convened again to say “okay what we are doing?”, “what are your community needs for this?”, “what resources do you need?”. We started right back up. Disaster preparedness should be for every community in the nation now - whether it’s floods, mudslides, or fires. The collaborative has helped us go quicker and faster. We have a lot more confidence in how we work with the community and we also know we don’t have to spend our time looking for someone who may have answer because we have that expertise amongst ourselves. We have a high trust factor. As a result, a homeowner has received much more support because they received help from one of us in the collaborative.

By Year 5 of the grant, what would you like to have accomplished for and with community residents?

There’s pre-Harvey and there’s post-Harvey so when you look at how we have been able to make lemonade out of lemons, we all see that we are more powerful together even with our funding requests. We’re able to do more for the community. We are already starting Year 3 of the post-Harvey relief efforts and looking ahead to the end of this work. When we look at what lies ahead, we know disasters are a natural part of our lives now. We need to be able to give on a continuum so our normal business operations are able to maintain itself. This allows us to give more and layer on support to the community with disaster preparedness. We won’t be doing Harvey in five years but we will be doing a disaster recovery in five years. Every major city in the nation will be doing that.

What are some things you would recommend others bear in mind before starting a similar collaborative?

I spoke to a Habitat affiliate in Omaha, NE about the collaborative after their recent storm. The collaborative makes you a stronger resource for the people that need it the most.  You don’t have to do this alone. You can get other experts around your area to partner with you so for example, you may not know how to handle that particular house but someone can get working on the houses because that’s how nonprofits work.

You have to know what your vulnerabilities are in your region and anticipate it. This is where LISC really helped us, because you need to know your neighbor so that you can reach out and make a bigger difference. If we hadn’t had 51 inches that covered the entire Houston area, I don’t know if we would have had the necessity to create the collaborative. Unfortunately, it’s when you realize what’s needed when it’s insurmountable. LISC really helped us realize quite frankly how much we could leverage together. It’s a pretty powerful collaborative, we have been able to do more repairs as a collective than the city has.

What role do you see philanthropy and other intermediaries playing in disaster recovery efforts?

Philanthropy is able to pivot and address the needs of the community quicker than our governmental agencies. Except for FEMA, immediate needs is not the role of government. Additionally, there is a gap in what FEMA can do and what disaster funds can do and that’s where the philanthropic dollar comes into play.

Philanthropy can respond quicker to their neighbor and it’s their ability to do just that. They’re able to take care of that bigger money and bigger funds to take care of the customer and homeowner until that other long-term dollar is in place. The Great Community of Houston Foundation along with the Mayor and Judge’s fund was transformational to the relief efforts. We weren’t able to reach the capacity in the same way – one giving social services, the other one working on the house interiors and the other repairing the homes’ foundation – without the collaborative. With all of those pieces you all of a sudden saw totally recovered people.

As part of our collaborative process, we funded one year of flood insurance for the repair home. This was innovative and necessary. If their home was flooded with TS Imelda, the flood insurance is able to help the family repair their home faster than before.  This helps protect homeowners from vulnerabilities and helps them become more resilient.  I don’t know if that idea had been used before but our collaborative supported it and I think it’s going to be a best-practice.