Opinion: Rosalynn Carter was a homebuilder, too

Habitat homeowners remember her for her tool belt, not her ball gowns.
Former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, join city and state officials, Habitat for Humanity leaders and volunteers at a project in Washington on Oct. 4, 2010. MUST CREDIT: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

Credit: The Washington Post

Credit: The Washington Post

Former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, join city and state officials, Habitat for Humanity leaders and volunteers at a project in Washington on Oct. 4, 2010. MUST CREDIT: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

With sawdust flying as she leaned into her stance, using proper technique and steady hands to guide the power drill’s spade bit into a 2 x 4, that’s how the families of Benning Road in the nation’s capital remember this first lady.

“And she was always smiling and so kind,” said Totreana Johnson, 59, who still lives in one of the 10 homes that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter helped build on a scrappy stretch of road in Southeast D.C.

The families began calling each other on Sunday evening, just as they were getting dinner started, to note the passing of first lady Rosalynn Carter, remembered in this part of town as an ace of the power drill and paint brush, rather than a state dinner hostess in floor-length gowns. She was always relatable, a first lady who went to her daughter’s public school parent-teacher conferences and championed mental health.

Petula Dvorak

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

“They were real,” said Hope Gibson, 80, another resident of the houses known all over this part of Washington as the Carter homes. “They just acted like everyone else, working and painting.”

This is how it’s done, America.

After President Jimmy Carter lost his reelection bid, the couple had to choose a path. And they chose to help, as best they could for as long as they could, hammering and sawing well into their 90s. They did much of this work with Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit that helps house struggling families by using volunteer hours, affordable payments and the volunteer’s own sweat equity.

The Carter homes were constructed on Benning Road in a week-long building blitz in 1992, an army of dozens of volunteers constructing homes for 10 D.C. families and explaining exactly how to solve one of the layers of America’s screaming housing crisis.

They’re single-family homes with three bedrooms and a bathroom, a covered front porch and sloping front lawn. Today, Zillow estimates they’re worth at least $350,000. But no one is selling.

For Johnson, this home was her lifeline to raise a family, to build a stable legacy for generations of Johnsons.

Born and raised in D.C., she was a young mom having a tough time finding safe and affordable housing for her family that kept her close to her job as an administrative assistant for the federal government. It was a tenuous balance that could collapse any moment if housing, child care or work shifted even one bit.

Gibson saw it as her family members began to leave their hometown for Virginia. “But I didn’t want to leave D.C.,” she said. “It’s where we are from. We are Washingtonians.”

The Carter homes solved this.

This is the nagging problem of most of our nation’s cosmopolitan centers, and in D.C. in particular. The people who do the everyday work of running the federal government, who keep the wheels turning through all the political turnovers, working for the American people no matter which political party is in power, can’t keep up with the forests of pricey condo builds and urban farmhouse renovations.

A lot of the folks in Johnson’s world were moving out to find cheaper and newer places in the suburbs. But that would have meant long commutes, something that wasn’t easy to do with two kids who were 9 and 1 years old.

Someone told her about Habitat for Humanity’s program.

“They insist you put in the sweat equity hours,” she said. So after putting in a long week for the federal government, Johnson put on safety goggles and gloves and went to work.

Now, that little house that Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter helped build is home to four generations of Johnsons.

“My mother was there, and I raised my kids in the house,” she said. “And now I’ve got grandchildren here.”

She’s watching in dismay as her daughter is trying to buy a home in the District, to keep the family money and legacy in their hometown. “But everything is so expensive, she can’t find anything,” she said.

As Johnson heads into her living room, the wall on the left side of the entryway usually makes her smile a little.

“Jimmy put that drywall up right there,” she said. “And Rosalynn was standing right by him.”

The work was exhausting, even for a woman then on the cusp of 30. “And the Carters, they just kept working and working,” Johnson marveled. We did the math. They were in their 60s.

On the last day of the build, someone came up to Johnson and a few of the other moms and told them, “The Carters want to speak with you.” They were nervous as everyone gathered.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter sat before 10 families about to become homeowners.

“They told us our payments would be $189 a month,” Johnson said. “I cried. My mother cried.”

Except for the case of one woman who was killed in a hit-and-run accident, 9 of the 10 homeowners are still in their Carter homes, Gibson and Johnson said. Their homes are paid off.

Each homeowner received a little book with photos of the build and a Bible. Johnson still has them on display in her home, right next to the white hardhat she wore.

She was invited to read a Bible verse in a church service blessing the 10 homes. And she remembers how nervous she was, the way the words echoed in the soaring heights of the Catholic Church.

“Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” Johnson read from the Book of James, 2:14, her voice quavering a bit before the crowd.

“Jimmy held my left hand and told me, ‘We got you,’” Johnson remembered. To her right, Rosalynn Carter nodded. “She was right there for me. They both were.”

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post.