04/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Housing the Poor? Nothing Is Impossible

Silver hair, crucifix, pale blue eyes and an irrepressible spirit that shines through, Ingrid Munro, daughter of missionaries, meets us for lunch at a restaurant called The Springs in an upscale part of Nairobi. The restaurant is spacious and clean with umbrella-covered tables filled with people eating typical Kenyan food.

The restaurant is owned by a member of Jamii Bora, Kenya's fastest-growing microfinance institution. Jamii Bora decided seven years ago to build homes for their members -- homes that they would purchase and own, with "mortgage" payments at a cost on par with what they pay for rent in the slums, about Ksh3.000 per month ($38). The organization found low-cost land near a river and a source of sand and other materials that could be used to make cement and other housing materials. In the end, the overall cost of infrastructure was very low. Today, 750 houses are complete. As Ingrid tells us, "You know, at Jamii Bora, we say nothing is impossible."

Ingrid tells us how she started Jamii Bora, and then speaks about her philosophy. "In the eighties," she says, "the big thing was to support only the rural areas. Donors thought it would keep rural people out of the urban areas and so they focused only on rural farmers, forgetting the urban and the landless populations altogether. We've learned so much since then. There is such a critical link between rural and urban people, and it is really the urban people who suffer most. Look at the conditions in which they must live!"

"But I don't want you to feel sorry for anyone. We tell our members that we will help provide a ladder, but they have to climb it themselves. We don't want people to feel sorry for them. If the donors come with tears in their eyes, people who otherwise would feel proud begin to feel that there is something wrong with them. And at the same time, when they see the tears, they also might think, 'Well if I am poor, then maybe I can use it to get some free money from that rich person.'

"Instead, Jamii Bora takes a tough love approach. Excuses are not allowed. The fast climbers are selected as mentors to encourage others to come up behind them. And Jamii Bora is helping them, once they can afford it, to move out of the slums altogether."

Most organizations thinking about low-income housing don't start by thinking about which communities they are targeting -- or what it means to strengthen people from the bottom up so that they can take advantage of the new homes in ways that will result in repayment of loans as well as maintenance of the local developments.

This idea of finding land where the raw materials needed to make the bricks and roofing tiles are readily available -- and free -- is brilliant. Had they not taken this approach, Jamii Bora would not be able to create houses the poor can truly afford. This, perhaps, is one of the major constraints to low-income housing development in many parts of the world. In this way, Jamii Bora was very lucky in Kaputei, the community the membership is building and in which Acumen Fund has invested. But still, creating a housing development an hour or two drive from Nairobi for and with 2,000 slum dweller families seemed like an impossible dream.

"And look," Ingrid continues, "that skinny young man in your country believed he could do anything and be anything. In the past, only the Luos would have claimed him for their son. Now, all Kenyans claim Obama as their own. It is one of the things that makes America a country to be proud of: nothing is impossible."