There is no one-size-fits-all solution for the complex, growing problem of global homelessness. With more than 1.6 billion people worldwide lacking safe shelter and that population expected to double over the next 30 years, we can’t entirely depend on traditional home-building methods to solve the problem. We also can’t depend on merely a few groundbreaking ideas. The housing crisis demands a vast variety of solutions that address different layers of the complex (and costly) social housing creation cycle — a goal that requires a commitment to experimentation.
Since 2015, we have helped build more than 2,300 homes across 25 communities in four countries. Every community we build brings new layers of complex issues. Over the past five years, we have viewed each community as an opportunity to create, prove, and share new concepts. Some of these ideas help correct our assumptions about community building, and some of them have forever changed how we operate. But all of them move us closer to a world without homelessness.
Here are nine impactful experiments from our first five years of community building:
1. Leveque, Haiti (2015): A transparent giving model
- Takeaway: Donors support teams they trust, and transparency creates trust.
2. Nuevo Cuscatlán 1, El Salvador (2016): Partnership with the government
- Takeaway: Government collaboration centralizes resources, gains influence, and grows impact.
3. Labodrie, Haiti (2017): Proved the impact multiplier of a home
- Takeaway: Data exposes problems, tracks progress, and shows where you can improve.
4. Ahuachapán 1, El Salvador (2017): Lean Participatory Design
- Takeaway: Asking families for feedback before you build is the most empathetic and efficient way to design human-centered communities.
5. Ahuachapán 2, El Salvador (2018): Data-driven design + repayments
- Takeaway: Data should influence all design decisions.
6. Tenosique, Mexico (2018): Mixed-income community
- Takeaway: Community design can help improve overall economic equality.
7. Zacatepec, Mexico (2019): Two-story homes
- Takeaway: Look for ways that help communities experience a sense of familiarity.
8. Nacajuca, Mexico (2019): 3D printing
- Takeaway: Top-tier innovation should first reach those who need it most.
9. Georgia & California, U.S. (2020): Rent relief
- Takeaway: Combating homelessness does not always look like home construction
Continue reading to learn more about each community experiment
Leveque, Haiti (2015): A transparent giving model
Takeaway: Donors give to teams they trust, and transparency creates trust.
Our primary goal during Y Combinator was to become an efficient fundraising platform for home construction. We wanted to disrupt the traditional methods of nonprofits by offering a more direct line of impact from the donor to the families they’re supporting.
For our first community, Leveque, we tested the idea of transferring every donation directly to the homes. We did this by setting up two bank accounts: one to fund our operating expenses and one to fund homes. A small group of generous donors known as The Builders completely cover our operating expenses. This allows every other dollar donated to go directly to building homes. No hidden fees, no amount redirected to cover our expenses, no dollar held from a family in need.
Many donors lacked trust with nonprofits due to not knowing exactly what their donation covered (sadly, many people still experience this problem). People would give, not see results, and question the efficiency and budget responsibility of many teams. We wanted to build differently. We wanted to create trust through transparency.
This experiment with a transparent giving model worked so well that it forever became a part of our framework. In 100 days, we raised $600,000 — enough to fund 100 new homes for families in Leveque. These 100 days birthed our 100% promise.
But beyond discovering the power of transparency, we also found that homebuilding brought layers of complicated issues that we couldn’t ignore. We knew we had to evolve from a fundraising platform to a team dedicated to experimenting with new solutions.
Nuevo Cuscatlán 1, El Salvador (2016): Partnership with the government
Takeaway: Government collaboration centralizes resources, gains influence, and grows impact.
Our first community in El Salvador was also the first community we built in partnership with the local government. While we gained nonprofit partnership experience in Haiti, we realized that government cooperation would be our next best step in improving the building process.
Thanks to a relationship with Michelle Sol, the mayor of Nuevo Custcatlan at the time, we were able to leverage government partnership for the installation of services directly in the homes. This was a monumental step towards learning what it takes to build holistic communities. With homes now having direct access to water, electricity, sewage systems, sidewalks, and other services, we knew we had to continue pursuing government relationships for all future communities. These partnerships help us reduce costs, gain influence with national decision-makers, and impact more families.
Labodrie, Haiti (2017): Proved the impact multiplier of a home
Takeaway: Data exposes problems, tracks progress, and shows where you can improve.
We have always believed homes impact every aspect of life, but we experimented in Labodrie to prove it. Before we built the community, we surveyed families to get a baseline understanding of their livelihood. We continued to survey the families post-completion to learn more about the multiplying impact of having a safe home. Three ways we leveraged impact data in Labodrie was identifying a mosquito issue, latrines over usage, and disturbed sleep.
Surveys revealed a mosquito issue within the community, mainly due to its location by the ocean. This also led us to discover why over half of the population (53%) experienced disturbed sleep. Also, latrines were filling up quicker than expected. Through gathering data, we found the problem was neighboring families were sharing latrines. Our partner, previously unaware of the issue, then went into the nearby communities and built latrines so they could have their own.
After families moved into their new homes, we saw sleep quality increase over time. When we noticed 86% of the community was experiencing better sleep, we were encouraged to dive deeper into using data to show how access to a dignified and safe home impacts other areas of life such as health, education, and overall well-being. Since working in Labodrie, we have integrated intake, move-in, and impact surveys into our process to learn from and impact families throughout the entirety of the community life cycle.
We built a tool that makes surveying easy, even in remote areas. You can check out Felix, our data collection tool, here.
Ahuachapán 1, El Salvador (2017): Lean Participatory Design
Takeaway: Asking families for feedback before you build is the most empathetic and efficient way to design human-centered communities.
Our second community in El Salvador played a pivotal role in forming our framework for building holistic communities. Dehan Glanz, an Urban Planning Professor at Stanford, reached out to our team with an idea. He wanted to help us make the community building process more human-centered by empowering the families to participate in the design. He provided us with the resources and connected us with two other urban planning advisors, Mitali Ganguly and Henry Posada.
We structured conversations with the families to discuss what they would like to see in their new community, then shared our learnings with the urban planning advisors who helped us shape the design according to the feedback. This process would forever change how we build. With Dehan, Mitali, and Henry’s help, we kept iterating the process and have now practiced this methodology in nearly 20 communities. We call it Lean Participatory Design (LPD). It makes human-centered design simple and has been shared with other housing practitioners, including Techo Paraguay.
Due to concerns over gang violence and recruitment, the local families expressed that something needed to change to help them feel safe and secure. Before we built, parents would keep their children inside any form of shelter they had. They didn’t have a safe space to gather as a community. These discussions led us to design the community with clusters of homes facing each other, a layout we likely would not have considered in the design prior to hearing the concerns from the families. These inward-facing clusters formed secure communal areas for parents to feel comfortable with their kids playing outside of their new homes.
Ahuachapán 2, El Salvador (2018): Data-driven design + repayments
Takeaway: Data should influence all design decisions.
Directly next to Ahuachapán 1 is Ahuachapán 2. Building two communities next to each other gave us a side-by-side comparison to see how much our learnings drove improvements in our process. Since we noticed many families in Ahuachapán 1 started businesses out of their new homes, we wanted to make design changes that made it easier for more families to do the same.
Data showed that families in Ahuachapán 1 were running their business through their front door, but this restricted their space and made them feel unsafe at night.
To make it easier and more comfortable for families to build a business from their home, we experimented with larger and lower windows for families to buy and sell from. We have since seen a growth in family-run businesses, providing a stable source of income for many in the community.
With new sources of income, families can make consistent payments towards their new home. The repayments build ownership and are reinvested into the community to help it thrive for the long haul. In our previous communities, the average payment rate against the expected payment rate was 51%. Currently, the payment rate in Ahuachapán 2 is 86%. This 35% increase in payments can largely be contributed to how we communicated with families from the beginning.
In Ahuachapán 1, the families associated our team as the “donors” of the community. This language created a communication gap when it came time for families to make payments towards their home. Rightfully so, the community did not fully understand why there needed to be payments to a donor. We needed to build more trust by improving our communication.
For Ahuachapán 2, we altered our language to connect with the community better by relating as an investor rather than a donor. This helped to create more trust and clear expectations throughout the entire project.
Lastly, our surveys also revealed that families prefer to cook and eat outdoors. The data led us to redesign the roofs to extend and create a shaded area for meals. Because bulk material purchasing is much cheaper, and we could save costs in the wall structure design, we modified the home design to include a paved and covered backyard patio for every single family.
Tenosique, Mexico (2018): Mixed-income community
Takeaway: Community design can help improve overall economic equality.
Our first mixed-income community is Tenosique, Mexico. This 500-home community houses 150 families living with a monthly median income of $71. New Story is funding these 150 families while the Imperative Fund is supporting the other 350 families who have a slightly higher income.
Tenosique is also our first one to feature four different home designs. Thanks to our local partner, Échale, families can choose any of the four homes that best suit their needs.
Often in community development, separating income levels can grow the gap of inequality. A mixed-income community creates a more natural environment for families where resources are more equitable. Every family is scheduled to move into their new home by the end of the year, and we’re eager to learn how this experiment aids in creating equality.
Zacatepec, Mexico (2019): Two-story homes
Takeaway: Look for ways that help communities experience a sense of familiarity.
Due to cultural preferences and a dense environment, Zacatepec is a community of our first two-story homes in Mexico. The community design mimics the hacienda, where dozens of families lived closely together for many generations. Individual units would be too far of a shift for these families to make comfortably.
We believe these two-story homes will help families experience a sense of familiarity. We’re even focusing on familiarity and cost efficiency with the materials we’re using. Our local partner, Échale, is implementing their ecoblock technology that sources 90% local earth and 10% cement blocks.
Zacatepec is also our first emergency response project in Mexico. An earthquake in 2017 destroyed hundreds of homes and scattered families across the area.
Since it was an emergency relief, government funds were immediately available. We saw this as an opportunity to prove to the local government the need to invest in long-term projects like community building in addition to investing emergency funds into shorter-term supplies and temporary solutions.
As one of our most urban projects, we look forward to collecting data and understanding the impact of community living in an urban setting.
Nacajuca, Mexico (2019): 3D printing
Takeaway: Top-tier innovation should first reach those who need it most.
In partnership with ICON and our local partner, Échale, we began building the world’s first community of 3D printed homes in 2019. This was our debut of implementing world-renowned innovation into the field. The learnings from this project have been invaluable in pushing the development of 3D printing technology forward to reduce cost, increase quality, and decrease construction time at scale. But more importantly, the 3D community is an example of the impact teams can make when bringing top-tier technology to those who need it most.
This community is our most notable achievement — as we implemented all of the lessons we learned up to this point — but we also know it’s only a snapshot of our long story to end global homelessness. It is a result of years dedicated to discovering problems and experimenting our way to new solutions. You can watch the journey through this 30-minute documentary on Apple TV+ here.
Georgia & California, U.S. (2020): Rent relief
Takeaway: Combating homelessness does not always look like home construction
When COVID-19 forced us to pause all active construction projects internationally, we experimented with a new solution to combat homelessness here in the U.S. We quickly vetted new partners, surveyed some of the world’s most vulnerable families, and built a monthly giving program that provided rent support during the pandemic.
As unemployment skyrocketed, we wanted to ensure low-income families stayed safe and kept their homes. We leveraged our 100% promise we established in our first ever community to help donors give in complete confidence. Every single dollar donated went directly to paying rent for a family facing eviction. Thanks to the Neighborhood, this community of monthly donors, we funded three months of rent for 358 families. You can meet one of the families by watching Jaime’s story below.
Building communities has moved us closer to the housing crisis over the past five years, and we have discovered more complicated issues we can’t ignore. In 2015, we thought we were merely building a transparent fundraising platform for homebuilding. But these five years and 25 communities have shown us the problem of global homelessness demands a dedication to experimentation.
From changing the size of windows to 3D printing, we believe every experiment, small or large, mundane or groundbreaking, is necessary for solving the larger problem. Five years of experimentation have taught us more than we could have imagined. But we know there is still a long way to go to ending global homelessness. There’s more to learn, more to experiment.