by Frank W. Jennings
One of the most historic houses in the United States was built in San Antonio about 1977.
It was the beginning of a program that has built or renovated more than 40,000 low-cost homes across America with the help and involvement of volunteers and families in need.
The innovative house was the idea of Mrs. Faith (Birdie) Lytle, whose inspiration came from Millard Fuller whom she and her husband, Rev. William Lytle, pastor of Madison Square Presbyterian Church, had visited around 1970 at Koinonia Farm, a privately owned, ecumenical, farm-based Christian self-help community near Americus, Ga.
Six years later, she wrote to Fuller in Zaire, Africa, where he was leading a grassroots effort of his Fund for Humanity to build simple homes among poor villagers. In his book, Love in the Mortar Joints, Fuller tells how, early in 1976, Birdie Lytle wrote to him posing this question:
"Millard, what do you think about the possibility of a Fund-for-Humanity-type project in the inner city? I've been working in San Antonio with a food pantry for the needy, and there is a center there where a young couple provides a wonderful, caring recreation program for teenagers. But the housing is awful, and the people who live in the area have absolutely no prospect of ever finding anything better. The problem is so huge I would scarcely know where to start, but it seems to me that if a few Christians were to get together with a lot of faith and determination, we could do something."
Within weeks, in the spring of 1976, Birdie Lytle assembled ten people in her living room to discuss a project that within the year would be incorporated as the San Antonio Fund for Humanity. Soon after, it became the first such group to be affiliated with the new Habitat for Humanity, Inc., headquartered in Americus, Georgia.
The ecumenical San Antonio group, a mixture of Protestants and Roman Catholics, quickly made arrangements for directing, administering, planning, fund raising, land purchasing, and construction operations. They formed a committee to select a deserving family to purchase and live in the house, which the new occupant would help build.
They bought a lot at 211 Hidalgo Street on the near West Side from the City for $1,376, and the house -- a basic, three-bedroom, one-story structure -- was opened with a ceremony for Ernesto and Sylvia Torres and their four children on October 21, 1978. Since then, Ernesto, a painter, and his family have bought an adjoining lot and marvelously improved house and property.
As 1996 began, Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio -- the oldest of more than 1,100 affiliates of Habitat for Humanity, International --put the finishing touches on its 91st house. Eleven houses were completed in 1995.
Each of the carefully selected families that move into the new houses must work 300 hours on the buildings, buying them when completed with a 20-year zero interest note. Mortgage payments are cycled into the financing of more homes.
Faith (Birdie) Lytle is still active among the volunteers who administer the dynamic self-help organization—including its sprawling ReStore, which sells recycled building materials beside the headquarters at 311 Probandt Street.