Habitat Walks Away From Affiliates’ Botched Job

February 1, 2006       Mark Hrywna      

Leah and Joe Pullaro and their eight kids outgrew their home “many children ago.” The Pullaros live in Washington Depot, Conn., about 90 miles from New York City, where housing prices are astronomical. They could’ve done okay selling their house, but it wouldn’t have been enough to buy a larger home in the same community.

The Pullaros approached Habitat for Humanity of Litchfield Hills, based in New Milford, Conn., and got approval to construct an addition to their home. Four years later, the family is still trying to tie up loose ends and correct errors made during the renovation, while the Litchfield Hills affiliate has closed and Habitat For Humanity International (HFHI) has walked away from the project.

Six of their eight children are adopted and have special needs, so handicapped accessibility was an issue for the Pullaros, in addition to simply needing more space. If the family was going to move, it’d be a big one, to the Midwest or someplace where the cost of living is not quite as high. “Being such a complicated family, we couldn’t just move anywhere,” Leah said. “It was gonna be a lot of research, a lot of digging, and a lot of sad kids.”

The plan then was to add almost 1,000 square feet to their 1,600-square-foot home, expanding from three bedrooms and one bathroom, to five bedrooms and two bathrooms.

From the start, there were many problems. “We didn’t know what our financial obligations were; we got no answers,” Leah said. And there was nothing in writing, a serious breach for Habitat for Humanity.

Construction started in June, 2003 but by year’s end, the Pullaros were told they were on their own, having to manage the project themselves.

“We felt very, very, very uncomfortable with the situation,” Leah said, adding that scheduling of volunteers and materials was haphazard.

“All the parts and pieces were there to make an organized, positive contribution, ” Leah said. There were plenty of volunteers who came every Saturday, she said, some for a couple years, but no support or management from the affiliate and none of the volunteers were experienced Habitat people. “Some Saturdays it looked like worker bees, 40 people working together.”

HFH of Litchfield Hills “handled the project completely wrong from the start,” Leah said. A contract should have spelled out what the couple was responsible for, up front in writing. “We didn’t know any of that stuff.”

Habitat for Humanity International is a central service organization that supports the work of affiliates, which are actually local, independent nonprofit groups that have a board of directors that sets construction schedules, raises money and selects families, etc., all within guidelines set forth by HFHI, according to HFHI Media Relations Manager Duane Bates.

Habitat International has covenant agreements with its affiliates that outline how they operate within certain guidelines, such as board selection, voting, annual audits, general operation and homeowner selection, he said.

The Litchfield Hills affiliate “didn’t follow our guidelines,” Bates said, which should have detailed construction schedules, financing, and the like. He still was not completely aware of the details of the verbal agreement but it did not include any of the basic things that Habitat follows, from a no-interest loan to a family selection committee. International works with affiliates and reviews affiliate practices but it’s the local board that’s charged with overseeing work, Bates said.

“They deviated outside the guidelines, that’s what caused this situation,” he said.

The covenant agreements are renewed annually and affiliates are reviewed every three years, according to Peter Dalton, support specialist for Habitat International’s non-urban affiliates in the Northeast. He added that Habitat is transitioning to an annual review process that won’t necessarily be face to face.

The Litchfield Hills affiliate was last reviewed in the summer of 2003, he said, and the board was the key issue identified at that time. By the next year, it was clear that efforts to revitalize the board obviously fell short, Dalton said, and in the fall of 2004 — almost a year after the local affiliate walked away from the Pullaros’ project — they met to talk about disaffiliation.

“A lot of our efforts are on building the brand, rather than protecting” it, Dalton said. There is “pretty regular communication” with affiliates, and as issues arise, “they share some internal documents with us.”

As far as giving them the resources they need, he said, International is continually working with affiliates to put expectations in writing and giving them resources for planning.

Habitat International in December disaffiliated the Litchfield Hills chapter — one of 11 in Connecticut — that had built seven homes in the area since it was founded in 1991. There were at least three board members at the affiliate, according to Bates, while Leah Pullaro said there were four or five board members when the project was approved in June 2002, but only one person who sometimes showed up on site once it got started. Dalton said Habitat usually recommends a local board to be made up of 12 to 20 members.

David Lincicome, identified as the affiliate’s most recent president on its Web site, did not return e-mail or telephone messages.

As for the unfinished renovations, HFHI told the Pullaros in a letter last month that it could not help them.

“We looked for other alternatives, but based on what was done, verbally, we were unable to help,” Bates said. Another nearby Habitat affiliate in Connecticut declined to resume the project because it did not follow the Habitat model, Bates said, and they also tried to work with community volunteers to help manage the project locally, but that also failed to materialize.

“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Bates said. “We’re very disappointed.”

He was not aware of any similar situation where an affiliate entered into a verbal agreement.

Habitat has more than 1,700 affiliates nationwide that built more than 5,000 homes in the United States last year, in addition to the 25,000 homes constructed worldwide. Over the years, Habitat has completed more than 200,000 homes, according to Bates. In 2004, the organization had more than $902 million in income, with $509 million in public support, according to its IRS Form 990 filing.

The majority of Habitat’s work is the construction of new homes, Bates said. Affiliates also rehabilitate existing homes that either have been donated or Habitat acquires and sells to a family with no interest or profit. That’s achieved primarily through local funding, although affiliates are able to apply for national funding grants.

“We had always been careful not to say anything negative, because we didn’t want the actions of one small group of individuals to affect the name of an entire organization,” Leah said. “We still think Habitat is a great organization.”

Leah hopes that, if anything has come of this situation, it’s a need for HFHI to retain greater control of what affiliates do, and a better checks and balances system. “This went on for a long time. Somewhere there’s a hole, where they’re not catching up, being able to see that an affiliate is having problems.”

Habitat’s model is set up so that affiliates are independent, nonprofit groups overseen by a local board of directors. Habitat works with affiliates and reviews affiliate practices but it’s the local board of directors that’s charged with overseeing local work because they are independent, Bates said.

“That grassroots model has allowed us to build successfully thousands of houses over the years,” he said.

As for the status of the addition, Leah said the bedrooms are “pretty much done” but work was completed without the help of people with expertise, and in some cases high school volunteers without supervision. Two of the bedrooms hardly have any heat, she said, and there are “all sorts of bits and pieces that have to be reconfigured.”

“The kids have been great,” Leah said, dealing with periods of time when all the bedrooms were gone, or having no kitchen for weeks at a time. “But we managed. All that stuff, it was for a positive end; and we met some incredible people we might not have had the opportunity to meet.”

A few individuals in the community will help the Pullaros finish up, with assistance from an anonymous donor who will get a great portion of it done. “Over time, things will get finished,” Leah said.

“We went in thinking, ‘Wonderful, we’ll get space, handicapped accessibility.’ We had put a lot of hope into the whole thing. The Habitat name, we never questioned anything. It would make such a huge difference in our children’s lives, and then it became this nightmare,” Leah said.

“The sad thing is all the pieces were there for an incredible experience.” NPT