Drudge is currently linking to this story from the Times Online: Charity homes built by Hollywood start to crumble

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.

One man pulled up his floorboards to find rubbish 5ft deep under his kitchen. Other complaints include cracking walls and rotting door frames that let in rats and ants. Many residents have complained of mildew and mysterious skin rashes.

I know, I know, I know. Insert obligatory Jimmy Carter joke here.

As always, though, there is more to the story. Here’s a little history on the Fairway Oaks project, from a 2002 Habitat press release:

Fairway Oaks opened as a public housing development in 1971 as Golfbrook Terrace. By the early 1990’s, the community had deteriorated and no families lived there. At the beginning of this century, the Jacksonville Housing Authority and Jacksonville Habitat for Humanity joined together for the Fairway Oaks project. The Housing Authority remodeled 67 units and sold HFH of Jacksonville 85 sites to build Habitat homes. The 85 homes were built (along with 17 others at a nearby site) as part Habitat for Humanity International’s 2000 Jimmy Carter Work Project. The Northeast Florida Homebuilders Association was key to building these houses in three weeks, receiving the prestigious HOPE Award for this work with Habitat for Humanity. The partnerships in Jacksonville have resulted in Habitat for Humanity of Jacksonville being the largest Habitat producer in the United States, building 200 houses in 2001.

Habitat for Humanity of Jacksonville (HabiJax) homes are sold, at no profit, to families who have been recommended by the family selection committee and approved by the board of directors. Families are responsible for monthly payments of about $300 on a 25-year, interest-free mortgage. The payments cover the mortgage, taxes, insurance and a maintenance escrow. Mortgage money is paid into a revolving “Fund for Humanity”, which supports the construction of other homes.

Jimmy Carter is the “celebrity power” behind Habitat for Humanity; he organizes the Carter Work Project events (which are also great Hollywood photo-ops), helps to raise money, and swings a hammer on the projects that bear his name. But it is a bit unfair to blame this whole episode on him.

The real responsibility for this problem is shared by the Jacksonville Housing Authority, Habitat Jacksonville, and the Northeast Florida Homebuilder’s Association — all of them must have known that they were building poor quality homes in a questionable location, and then selling them to naive home buyers.

There has been trouble at Fairway Oaks for some time. The New York Times covered this story a year and a half ago and reported:

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.

As the complex deteriorated, the housing authority offered the land to HabiJax for one dollar. For HabiJax, the land fit their mission, said Mary Kay O’Rourke, the HabiJax president. The project would remove a public blight and replace tax-subsidized housing with homes for people who could not otherwise afford them.

The first residents, mostly single women who had never owned homes, bought in for $500 down, 300 hours of sweat equity, and no-interest mortgages of around $45,000 to $61,000. Monthly payments, including insurance, are generally less than $300. HabiJax ran bus tours to show off the new community.

But when homeowners started having problems, several of them said the organization was aloof and unresponsive. In 2005, the cracks in one foundation 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. April Charney, a Legal Aid lawyer representing the homeowners, said HabiJax had an obligation to tell residents that part of the development’s land had previously been used as a garbage dump.

To summarize:

  • Fairway Oaks was built on land that contained areas previously used as a garbage dump.
  • Prior to the construction of Fairway Oaks, a public housing development stood on the same land.
  • Residents of the public housing development complained about contamination.
  • The soil was tested and declared “safe,” but problems with settling, drainage, and runoff were noted.
  • HabiJax bought the land from the Jacksonville Housing authority for $1 — presumably because no one else would touch it
  • 85 homes were built in 17 days

None of the reports go into details about the construction of the homes, but common sense should tell you that there is no way that 85 homes can be built in two and a half weeks without a considerable number of compromises. Even if volunteers are supervised by professionals (as Habitat rules state) and even if all all plumbing, mechanical, and electrical work is performed by licensed contractors and inspected by the city before the houses are sold, cheap poor quality materials — especially if they are improperly installed — will result in shoddy homes that deteriorate quickly.

Jacksonville is located on the northern coastline of Florida. Jacksonville’s proximity to the coast means high humidity and a water table that lies very close to ground level. Unless your home is built using techniques and materials to make the walls and slab moisture resistant, then you are going to have a lot of problems with mold and mildew. And if your slab cracks, you’re in big trouble. In the case of the Fairway Oaks homes, it seems that loose soil and poor concrete work are both equally probable causes of slab failures.

I spent many years working in the environmental industry, and with respect to indoor air quality issues in homes, the single most important contributing factor was the quality of the home construction. Another major factor was the amount of effort that homeowners put into regular housekeeping and repairs.

Habitat for Humanity is well-known for selling homes to first-time home buyers who could not otherwise afford a home. Unfortunately, many of these home buyers come from situations where generations of people have lived in rentals or public housing. It’s probably unfair to generalize too much, but undoubtedly some of these home owners have been conditioned to pick up the phone and call someone else when something breaks, rather than fixing it themselves, especially if the repairs are expensive. Habitat provides a “maintenance escrow” but it would be unlikely that such an account could cover major repairs like foundation leveling. If people don’t have the means to pay for major home repairs (a problem shared by many low-income home buyers), they can be left with a ruined home very quickly, particularly if it is poorly built in the first place.

But are the people really sick, you may ask. The honest answer is, it doesn’t really matter. Once the stigma of “pollution” is attached to a piece of land, it is nearly impossible to convince residents that they are not being slowly poisoned. This is especially true in low income communities, where a strong ethic of looking out for each other is combined with an acute distrust of outsiders. The problem is compounded at Fairway Oaks because of its legacy both as a landfill and as the location of a previous low income housing development; in other words, the land doesn’t seem to be fit for anyone who would have a choice about living there.

Given the history of contamination and soil instability problems at the Fairway Oaks site, liability and insurance requirements should have forced HabiJax to conduct Phase I and Phase II environmental investigations. If HabiJax failed to incorporate the results of those investigations in the preparation of the building sites or the construction of the homes, and failed to disclose the results of those investigations to potential home buyers, then obviously they will bear a huge liability. If that indeed is the case, then as far as I am concerned HabiJax deserves whatever it has coming.

In the end, the Homebuilders Association received an award from HabiJax, the Jacksonville Housing Authority got to unload an enormous white elephant, and HabiJax won the adoration of Hollywood. Everyone came out on top — except for the poor. Funny how that usually happens when big-hearted liberals and government bureaucrats get together and try to solve a problem.

(h/t to Michelle Malkin, who found the 2007 NY Times piece)

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