How USAID and HFHI united neighbors to heat their homes, reduce their energy bills, and strengthen their communities
“I’m always finding some excuse to be the last one at work because it’s warmer there. I’m fed up with high bills and chilly rooms.” — Lile Kike, Skopje, North Macedonia
“I could not afford to heat our house last year. I just turned on the stove for 20 minutes in the kitchen to make it possible for everyone in the family to sit around the table for breakfast.” — Nona Nalbandyan,Yerevan, Armenia
“When I first moved in here, the windows were old, and we covered them with blankets to stop the wind.” — Ivana Georgievska, Skopje, North Macedonia
These stories are all too common in Europe and Eurasia, where housing for low income residents and retirees is dominated by 1960s era apartment blocks. When the Communist bloc collapsed, a wave of privatization swept across the region. Sadly, the governance structures and financial mechanisms required to maintain these buildings did not immediately follow. The massive state institutions charged with repairs during the Soviet period no longer existed.
As a result, newly private homeowners had no one to call when their windows shattered or their bedroom never seemed to warm up.
Many residents of these aging apartment blocks are already struggling with daily expenses. In North Macedonia, for example, 25.7 percent of the population was considered unable to keep their homes adequately warm according to Eurostat data from 2016. This way of life is perilous in a part of the world where winters are long and dark, with temperatures routinely dipping to 20–30 degrees Fahrenheit (-6 to -1 degree Celsius).
As heat escapes through the cracks in the walls and ceilings, the cost of heating a building — and keeping the lights on — rises by as much as 20 to 30 percent. The situation becomes particularly dire during the winter months, when the price for heat is too high for many people to bear.
As housing prices and energy bills continued to rise through the 1990s and into the 2000s, residents of these crumbling structures had few places to turn. Fearing the impact of skyrocketing housing costs on already fragile communities, USAID and Habitat for Humanity stepped in.
Starting in 2011 in North Macedonia and expanding into Armenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, USAID works with Habitat for Humanity in Europe and Eurasia to help create the financial mechanisms, public awareness, organizations, and local government buy-in needed to empower residents to organize for better, healthier, more affordable neighborhoods.
USAID’s partnership with Habitat for Humanity is far from traditional development. Directly retrofitting every apartment block would have been prohibitively expensive. It would also have taken decision-making out of the hands of the residents.
USAID and Habitat for Humanity chose a different course. Habitat reached out to homeowners to inform them about how much money they were losing per month in unnecessary energy bills. Those who expressed interest in retrofitting their homes found a partner in Habitat.
The key to success turned out to be a combination of community organizing and burden sharing. Residents had to pool their own resources, request a loan from a bank, and consistently pay down that loan as a community. Habitat helped neighbors organize and agree on a refurbishment plan. Now they only needed a financing partner.
In North Macedonia, Habitat set up its own loan fund to demonstrate that homeowner’s associations are reliable clients. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, residents started out financing the repairs through personal savings and local government subsidies facilitated by Habitat. In Armenia, Habitat worked directly with banks to craft loans tailored for homeowner’s associations.
To understand the success of the partnership between Habitat for Humanity and USAID, one only needs to visit these neighborhoods.