Open House

Habitat for Humanity should be celebrating. Homes should be for sale to poor families in South Dade. New construction should be advancing. All stories should have happy endings.

Betancourt became an advocate of the project because she trusted Homestead Habitat's former executive director Dorothy Adair, who had promised that area homeowners would be proud of Jordan Commons. Betancourt's faith in Adair hasn't wavered, even though she was fired by the group's board of directors in January 1996, after having served in leadership positions since 1993. Habitat's board also fired her husband Robin Adair, whom the board had hired as general contractor.

Dorothy Adair, a feisty, Brooklyn-born Italian-American, married the son of a prominent Homestead judge 22 years ago and quickly immersed herself in community affairs. A former state parole officer, she had never before managed a project on the scale of Jordan Commons. What she knew about construction she learned on the job. But she is articulate and bursting with self-confidence, and is widely known as a creative thinker and an aggressive fundraiser. During her tenure, Homestead Habitat built 50 homes and raised nearly eight million dollars in cash and in-kind donations. Despite fundamental differences of opinion with Habitat's international leadership, she has never compromised her vision of how low-income families should be housed. "Because these are poor people, you have to assume that they are not going to be able to replace anything after two years, or five years," she asserts. "Your primary objective is a house that's affordable to live in, not just cheap to buy."

When Dorothy Adair and her husband were forced out of Homestead Habitat for Humanity, the group was virtually free of debt. According to its September 1996 financial statements, it had $100,000 in cash in the bank and $2.9 million in assets. Since then, however, the organization has neither raised any money nor completed a single home. Habitat officials have nearly exhausted a $4.1 million federal grant administered by Dade County, and they are asking for $400,000 more. And Habitat now owes BankAtlantic, one of it most ardent financial backers, nearly half a million dollars. "We were one of the earliest supporters of the Jordan Commons development," wrote BankAtlantic chairman and chief executive officer Alan Levan this past December. "I personally traveled to Washington, D.C., in support of this effort. Unfortunately, Jordan Commons has not worked out as anticipated. Management changes, fiscal irresponsibility, and lack of appropriate planning and control at Homestead Habitat for Humanity have jeopardized the integrity of Jordan Commons."

Dorothy Adair and husband Robin, along with several others from the Homestead area, were introduced to Habitat for Humanity in 1991, when they participated in a weeklong marathon of house-building called the Jimmy Carter Work Project, sponsored by Habitat for Humanity of Greater Miami. About a dozen of the Homestead volunteers were impressed enough to join the Miami Habitat group; Dorothy Adair, for example, became a member of its board of directors. But after Hurricane Andrew flattened many of the poorest neighborhoods in Homestead and Florida City in August 1992, donations flowed in from around the world, which led the South Dade volunteers to believe they could raise the funds necessary to establish an independent organization separate from Greater Miami Habitat. That move was opposed by the Miami group, but the Adairs and their colleagues pushed ahead in hopes of concentrating solely on hurricane reconstruction.

The chapter was officially chartered in February 1993, Dorothy Adair was named executive director, and the first thirteen houses were built in Florida City about seven months later. Those first homes were based on the easy-to-build plans Habitat International provides as models to local affiliates: unadorned 1000-square-foot wooden structures. The Adairs thought they could do better. "We took issue with the building of homes of wood because -- at least in our part of the country -- wooden homes are considered substandard," says Robin Adair. "It was felt that poor people live in wooden homes and the well-to-do live in block homes. So [after the Florida City construction], we built exclusively in block construction until we got into the Jordan Commons project later."

The Adairs developed and nurtured a vision: to build a total environment for poor families, complete with landscaped yards, parks, and other amenities. Dorothy Adair asked Armando Montero, a South Miami architect and professor at Miami-Dade Community College, to design the houses for Habitat's next project, an ambitious 36-home subdivision in Homestead.

These houses would be built of cinder block, and though simple, would include wide porches, various energy-conservation features, and other innovative touches that would later be incorporated into Jordan Commons. The Adairs also proposed using one block of donated land as a park and playground, a decision that put them at odds with Habitat International, whose principal mandate is to dedicate all resources to the actual construction of homes.

Bolstered by a $1.7 million donation from the Burdines department store chain, construction began in September 1993 and was completed in June 1994. The homes were sold to needy families screened by Homestead Habitat at prices ranging from $45,000 to $55,000. As is customary, the organization itself became the lending institution, issuing interest-free mortgages after providing finance and budget counseling to prospective homeowners, all of whom had to perform some form of "sweat equity" work, such as assisting in the Habitat office or working on their own or another family's home.

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