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.

While each innovative feature would increase Habitat's upfront investment, many of them also attracted donations to the project. For example, DuPont Corp. provided the white, Teflon-like coating for the reflective roofs. The American Cement Paving Association donated $149,000 to cover the difference between the cost of asphalt and the more expensive but cooler concrete roads. DERM's Barryman obtained more than $250,000 for solar-water heating arrays, and her agency provided an additional $165,000 for the experimental gray-water recycling system.

Once construction planning began in earnest, Habitat International decided that, extravagant or not, the environmental features of Jordan Commons could be highlighted to raise money for the organization as a whole. In 1994 Habitat International mailed out 260,000 letters praising Jordan Commons's unique features and asking for contributions. The campaign raised $934,000, of which $197,000 was specifically designated for the Jordan Commons project (the rest went to Habitat sites in other cities).

This imposing collection of funding sources impressed Princeton resident Nina Betancourt, whose initial skepticism was replaced by growing enthusiasm. "It wasn't business as usual as far as affordable housing," she says. "It was building up to the community you were living in. Habitat had a lot of plans, a lot of support, a lot of in-kind donations. They seemed very well supported by universities and innovative companies."

One of those sources of support ended up creating more problems than it solved. The American Iron and Steel Institute offered to donate two million dollars' worth of material so that the Jordan Commons homes might be framed with steel beams instead of wood or cinder blocks. While steel framing is common to skyscrapers, it is unusual for private residences, but the institute promised to help train Habitat volunteers to use the material. The National Association of Home Builders Research Center also used the project -- for a few months at least -- as a training site for builders from all over the nation.

The steel frames (and roof trusses as well) had never been employed on such a large scale in Dade County, and the South Florida building code had no provisions for such construction. Habitat planned to build six prototype homes elsewhere in South Dade -- each with a different design -- so that inspectors could develop new codes and builders could learn to construct them. But the inspectors were wary of the new material, and Habitat's construction crews, composed of volunteers and paid employees, were forced to dismantle and rebuild several of the prototypes. The houses the inspectors finally approved were prohibitively expensive: a prototype two-story house required eleven and a half tons of steel. Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk then created new plans using less than two tons of steel, but houses built from her design also had to be inspected.

"Doing the steel was absolutely the worst thing," complains FIU's Jack Parker. "The construction plans turned into 'How do we make steel houses in South Florida? How do we cut costs here? How do we make this volunteer-friendly?' The steel made the houses extremely nonvolunteer-friendly."

Building with steel created other problems. Promised shipments did not arrive, and the Adairs had to prod the steel institute to get them. Habitat International officials, as it happened, had decided that steel was an inappropriate material to be used exclusively at Jordan Commons, and had tried to persuade the institute to donate some of the promised Homestead materials to other Habitat projects in other cities.

The delays, combined with a staff that had grown to eighteen paid employees, boosted construction costs so high that Habitat could afford to build only four of the six prototypes -- at the steep price of more than $100,000 each. The Adairs expected per-unit costs to fall as more houses were built, but Habitat had to continuously raise money to keep the project advancing, and the fundraisers did not meet their goals. When Dorothy Adair, in December 1995, admonished a fundraising specialist on loan from Habitat International (he had brought in only $50,000 of a promised $1,000,000), he and two other staffers from the international chapter walked out, but not before sending letters to the board of directors sharply critical of the Adairs. Wrote Gene Crumley: "I chronically experience the work environment in Homestead Habitat for Humanity as both chaotic and unpredictable. It is my impression that the management experiences this affiliate as its possession, rather than a gift from God. Given through the generous contributions of scores of people, management is properly the steward of a gift of God, not its owner. This distinction is subtle, I grant, but nonetheless critical."

About the same time Crumley and the others quit, Dorothy Adair was struggling with another personnel problem. She wanted to fire a construction hand who happened to be the son of a board member. The son allegedly was discovered smoking marijuana on the site, and Adair felt the liability risks were too great to continue his employment. But the board member refused to let her fire his son.

Shortly after that incident, according to Adair, the board complained for the first time that the organization's financial reports were incomprehensible. "They were fuzzy," says board member Mary Louise Cole. "They didn't make a whole lot of sense. That was our main concern. We are fiscally responsible and we couldn't get clear reports. We'd say please redo this, and we'd get reports that made no sense."

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