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Jimmy Carter & Habitat for Humanity: Celebrity slum lords?

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By Michelle Malkin  •  January 4, 2009 07:20 AM

The road to hell is paved with good intentions — and, apparently, the homes in the neighborhoods along that hellish path are built by Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity. The Times of London reports on one of the celebrity charity’s biggest showcase projects in Jacksonville, Florida, Fairway Oaks, where residents claim their houses are crumbling due to shoddy construction:

Residents of a model housing estate bankrolled by Hollywood celebrities and hand-built by Jimmy Carter, the former US president, are complaining that it is falling apart.

Fairway Oaks was built on northern Florida wasteland by 10,000 volunteers, including Carter, in a record 17-day “blitz” organised by the charity Habitat for Humanity.

Eight years later it is better known for cockroaches, mildew and mysterious skin rashes.

A forthcoming legal battle over Fairway Oaks threatens the reputation of a charity envied for the calibre of its celebrity supporters, who range from Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt to Colin Firth, Christian Bale and Helena Bonham Carter.

The case could challenge the bedrock philosophy behind Habitat for Humanity, claiming that using volunteers, rather than professional builders, is causing as many problems as it solves.

April Charney, a lawyer representing many of the 85 homeowners in Fairway Oaks, said she had no problems taking on Habitat for Humanity, despite its status as a “darling of liberal social activists”. She said the charity should have told people that part of the estate had been built on a rubbish dump.

More from the ToL here.

The battle has been brewing for some time. A quick Google search shows that the New York Times covered the story in June 2007:

Seven years later, Ms. Zeigler is one of more than 50 Fairway Oaks homeowners who have problems with their houses and say they fear that the blitz construction was shoddy and that their land, adjacent to two former town dumps, is unstable or contaminated.

“My pride is gone,” Ms. Zeigler said, pointing to cracks in her house’s ceiling and its concrete slab foundation. “I’ve got a 25-year mortgage, and I’ve got stuff that needs to be addressed or I’m just paying my mortgage in vain, because I won’t have a house in 25 years because it will be falling apart.”

The Fairway Oaks owners took their complaints to Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, and of 56 who answered a survey for Legal Aid, 41 reported cracked concrete slabs, 22 had cracked walls and 48 said their houses were infested with insects or rodents, presumably because of the cracks. Others reported mold or mildew, nails popping out of plasterboard and other problems. The Habitat for Humanity local affiliate, HabiJax, maintains that the land at Fairway Oaks is stable and that most problems there are housekeeping issues, not structural. City inspectors this month examined six houses and found no violations. But in a vulnerable population, the perceptions have a life of their own. A project built with sweat equity and good will has had unintended consequences, and costs.

All Jimmy Carter-bashing and schadenfreude aside, do the residents have a bona fide case or are these professional moochers trying to pin blame on others for their own lack of personal responsibility?

Probably a bit of both. A few of the houses seem to have been clearly uninhabitable. In 2005, the cracks in one foundation reportedly “became so severe that the house had to be lifted and settled on piers. Engineers hired by HabiJax found six feet of debris buried under the soil,” reports the NYT.

But was the entire project tainted?

Note this paragraph in the same NYT article:

In the early 1990s the land held a blighted public housing complex, built on land that had been used, in isolated pockets, as a dump. After complaints by residents, the Environmental Protection Agency tested the soil for contamination. The E.P.A. concluded that the land was safe but noted that two buildings had been demolished because of soil settling, possibly caused by debris decomposing under the soil. A later soil test found elevated levels of arsenic, but the Florida Department of Health determined there was no significant health risk.

Ronnie A. Ferguson, president of the Jacksonville Housing Authority, said the two buildings had been damaged by water runoff, not because of soil instability associated with buried debris.

I’ve watched enough of these “environmental justice” activists to know that they coach their clients to complain about vague ailments (“mysterious skin rashes”) that have no relation in reality to the environmental conditions they claim are the cause. These professional grievance-mongers have blocked countless private redevelopment and remediation projects — and milked tens of millions in settlements — based on bogus scientific and medical claims. Then there’s this:

Before October 2005, few knew how widely their complaints were shared. Then, Shirley Dempsey, president of the homeowners association, said she began having a series of dreams that she said were religious visions, leading her to discover problems in her house and others.

Uh-huh.

Other neighbors who didn’t share Dempsey’s “visions” have a more pragmatic take on the problems:

Some residents dismiss their neighbors’ complaints, attributing them to poor maintenance by first-time homeowners. “Lots of problems, people can take care of themselves,” said Dinelle Fields, 51. “Get a bleach bottle,” she said, referring to complaints about mildew.

In the end, I can’t say I feel too much sympathy for Jimmy Carter and his Hollywood partners. The Left has stoked both eco-zealotry and the entitlement culture with impunity. Perhaps they’ll feel a little less inclined to feed those beasts after getting bitten squarely in the ass.

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