Carter hammers away at low-cost housing

Ex-president leading construction crew in New York renovation

NEW YORK The news camera crews came in waves, recording his every movein clicks and bright lights, but Jimmy Carter kept hammering and sawing Monday with the same kind of work obsession that marked his presidency.

Carter barked at one man who was about to mess up a joist that Carter was preparing to notch, he grumbled when someone kept unplugging his electric saw, and he looked irritated when a TV lightman fell into a hole Carter was about to cover with a piece of plywood.

The former president planned to spend the rest of this week here exercising the carpentry skills he learned as a boy on a peanut farm in Plains, Ga., but he had achieved his chief purpose in coming simply by showing up on the front steps of a fire-gutted brick building on the Lower East Side.

The idea was to bring publicity to the work of Habitat for Humanity, anon-profit Christian organization based in Americus, whose ambitious goal is to eliminate sub-standard housing from the world. Carter recently joined the board of Habitat.

Carter brought with him a busload of Georgians for the task of refurbishing the six-story building in the heart of one of New York's most blighted areas, a 30-block section dominated by abandoned buildings and drug pushers.

In a city where people are not easily impressed, perhaps 200 community residents kept excited vigil behind police barricades while Carter worked inside the building.

When Carter stepped out for a morning press conference, the crowd applauded. And they applauded again when Carter climbed onto a rickety balcony and waved acknowledgement to a woman who had sent up a pot of flowers.

But there were also skeptics. 'They are bringing in people from Connecticut and Georgia, but what about the people who live here?' complained Bill Spearman, who occupied a kiosk outside the building to protest the work. 'We've had eviction notices on top of eviction notices. Where are those (evicted) people going to go?'

Habitat officials argue that helping such people is the very reason for the organization's existence.

Once the building here is fully refurbished, sometime next year, Habitat plans to sell the apartments, interest-free, to 20 needy families.

The city, which owns the building, has agreed to sell it to Habitat, although the price still is being negotiated.

Robert DeRocker, director of the Habitat project in New York, said the city is asking $26,000, but Habitat officials worry that paying that much would confirm community suspicions that the project will drive up property prices in the area. The city has unloaded some abandoned buildings for as little as $1, according to Millard Fuller, Habitat's founder.

Habitat expects to sell the apartments at a price of from $30,000 to $35,000 each, dirt cheap by New York standards. Residents will be able to pay off the loans from Habitat over a period of up to 20 years.

But as part of the bargain, the tenants, once they are selected, will be expected to help in the rebuilding effort. 'This is not a hand-out, ' said Fuller.

Part of the Habitat concept is to encourage a kind of housing chain-reaction whereby each new set of tenants will develop the skills and pride in home ownership to help others build better homes, Fuller said.

Habitat for Humanity, created by Fuller as an outgrowth of his involvement with Koinonia Farms, a religious commune in Americus, already has applied that concept in 50 other American cities, including Atlanta, and 11 foreign countries.

Fuller said houses have been built for as little as $1,000 in Zaire, where Habitat first tried the concept eight years ago. The New York project, by contrast, is expected to cost $500,000 to $700,000.

Habitat cuts overhead by relying on volunteers.

Carter was primarily responsible for organizing the contigent of Georgia volunteers.

Phyllis Wheeler said Carter called her husband, Tom, a math teacher at Georgia Southwestern College with experience in the Peace Corps, without ever having met him. The couple elected to spend part of their honeymoon working on the building here. They have been married two weeks.

Charles Smith, a Moultrie farmer and real-estate executive, said he also got a call from Carter. He brought along his wife Deen, whose late husband Cecil Day founded the Days Inn motel chain.

The contingent also included Albert Cooper, a construction executive who serves on the Americus City Council, Dr. Schley Gatewood Jr., an Americus obstetrician, David Ewing, a physics and astronomy professor at Georgia Southwestern College, who brought along his wife June and daughter Sherryl, and Betty Pope, one of the organizers of Carter's 'Peanut Brigade' and her husband John, a Sumter County businessman.

For comic relief, Carter summoned former State Senator Beverly Langford of Calhoun, whose daughter Judy is married to Carter's oldest son Jack.

On the bus from Georgia, Langford entertained the riders with frequent jabs at Carter, boasting that the Langfords dominate in the athletic prowess of their grandson, Jason, and blaming Carter's 1980 loss to President Reagan on the fact that Carter went to Georgia Tech. Langford, a lawyer, went to the University of Georgia.

The Georgians were joined at the project site by members of the New York Habitat chapter and by a few folks who just wandered in off the streets after hearing about the event.

Officials of the local carpenter's union, which had threatened to picket the project until Habitat officials explained what they were up to, delivered Reuben Last, an apprentice carpenter, when they stopped by to present Carter with a cap bearing the union's symbol. Last said he was planning to come anyway after hearing about the event on radio on his way to the annual Labor Day parade on Monday.

Bob Whittemore, a Connecticut stockbroker who has an apartment in New York, said his mother told him about the project, and he decided to stop by to try to renew old acquaintences. He spent a week at Koinonia Farms in Americus in 1968.

David Hartman, host of ABC's Good Morning America new show, stopped by briefly but declined Carter's urging to take up the hammer and saw.

For Paul Felix Montez, a plumber, the interest was personal. He represents the third generation of his family to live in the neighborhood where the work is being done.

'There is skepticism because we have been hurt too many times, ' said Montez. 'We have a subway station that was built but never opened. The city offered us housing, but we don't get housing.'

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