For Pete Dupuis, it was, in many ways, a manner of being in the right place at the right time—several times. That stack of happy happenstances is a common story for efficacious entrepreneurs, but when the protagonist is a seasoned and successful businessman in the afternoon of his career, with an empire, of sorts, founded on selling some 23,000 condominiums, and one of those happy happenstances is the real estate implosion of 2008, then things get a little topsy-turvy.
Mix in a fortuitous plane ride sitting next to the founder of TOMS Shoes and a connection with a former film executive who sold his estates to live in a Cambodian dump, and, well, it's the right recipe for World Housing, a 1-for-1 house-gifting program that folds into real estate marketing fees the funds to build a house in a garbage-economy community. "Our job is real simple," Dupuis says by phone. "We want to create a bunch of homes."
But let's start at the beginning. Thirty-two years ago Dupuis teamed up with Sid Landolt to establish a business marketing and selling luxury and prime real estate, peddling over the course of their partnership tens of thousands of condos and forging working relationships with people in each of the 11 countries (spread across four continents) in which they did business. It was a sweet gig. At least until 2008, when a national mortgage crisis put the entire industry in a blender and pressed frappé. "I wasn't too thrilled," Dupuis deadpans.
He took the opportunity to finish his grad degree in social entrepreneurship. Somewhere along that path, on a flight between Vancouver and LAX, he sat next to a man named Blake. Dupuis introduced himself as a man in the realty business. Blake worked in shoes.
Luckily the flight was long, and it came out that Blake was actually TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie, the businessman who, after visiting Argentina while competing in The Amazing Race, began a 1-for-1 program that gives a pair of shoes to an impoverished child for every pair sold in the first world. "I knew during that plane ride I needed to change my thesis and try to turn [my degree] into a business. [Sid and I] were purpose-built to do this business," Dupuis says. "I asked myself: who on earth would benefit the most from a house?" The answer became clear through his research: people living in communities like Cambodia's Steung Meanchey, where 12,000 subsist on the $1- to $2-a-day earned from recycling trash.
The next three years," Dupuis says, "were kind of personal." The degree program forced him to move glacially—"the beautiful thing about doing a thesis"—so he spent months learning about the world's 120M "dump dwellers," those whose entire economy depends on their ability to scavenge for food and recyclables. According to World Housing's official site, the millions living in third-world garbage dumps—the largest of which is the Philippines' Smokey Mountain Landfill, home to some 30,000 people—have the worst living and working conditions in the world.
While his fellow students pored over studies and checked out books, Dupuis experienced his research firsthand. "I was the only one in graduate school who had the money to jump on a plane and fly to these crazy places," he says.
Along the way he met Scott Neeson, the former president of 20th Century Fox International, who, after visiting Cambodia on sabbatical, rather famously resigned from his film exec job, sold off his house, boat, and cars, and founded the Cambodian Children's Fund. He's lived in Steung Meanchey since 2004, and has since offered education and healthcare to some 1,500 children. "I thought, 'Hey if he can change, I can change,'" Dupuis says. "Without meeting him I don't know if I would have had the balls to try this, to be honest."
Collaborating with Neeson just made sense. Neeson's foundation provides maternal care, clean food, and leadership training, but the cost of providing housing had meant that shelter had taken a backseat. Using the infrastructure Neeson set up, World Housing has constructed factories that can churn out houses for only $2,500 a pop. There are already deals to build more than 740 homes globally, each housing six to eight people. The long-term goal? To house 30,000 people between now and 2020 in garbage dumps across the globe, starting with Cambodia's Steung Meanchey, the Philippines' Smokey Mountain, and Mexico's Xtapa Landfill.
Dupuis describes World Housing's structures as "regionally sensitive." Each is essentially a 10-foot-by-10-foot corrugated steel box insulated with rice husks—"they're almost like nuclear waste, they're hard to destroy and serve no purpose except they make great insulation"—and topped with a solar panel. The structures are raised on stilts to prevent flooding and pests. Plus, lifting the house above the ground means there's twice as much covered space; most people sleep and store valuables in the enclosed house above, and use the open ground floor as their daytime cooking and living area.
Each house is constructed by local youth that are trained to build. The hope is that they'll then be able to enter the skilled labor market elsewhere.
So how do the finances work? First, a developer builds some condos. Next, the developer calls upon World Housing to help them sell those condos, lured in by the expertise of the company's founders and research that, Dupuis says, "tells us that a buyer sees World Housing as a social venture," which may provide an edge in the market. The money developers give World Housing for those services is, in turn, siphoned off to pay for a house in the Philippines, Cambodia, or Mexico.
"Developers anywhere in the world are welcome, though they must first have to "pass what I call the good-guy taste test," Dupuis says. "But, yes, if we get a phone call from South America or India we're ready to go." To learn more, visit World Housing's official site.
· World Housing [official site]
· World's First Real Estate Gifting Model Launches Today [Curbed Vancouver]