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.

With the possible exception of Cole, who runs the Interfaith Coalition for Andrew Recovery Effort, Homestead Habitat's board of directors lacked extensive fundraising and financial-management experience. Even without understanding the reports, however, the board decided that Habitat was in trouble. The group's accountant, Neven Brail, tried to assure the board that finances were tight but not hopeless. Savings gained by cutting the staff twenty percent would get the immediate bills paid. But overall, Brail contended, Habitat had plenty of cash in the bank and more cash on line. In addition, it had $841,000 in mortgages for other Habitat houses, some of which could be sold to raise more cash. But board members did not understand Brail's explanations, and they apparently could not understand the reports he wrote every month, which clearly showed the amount of money in the Habitat bank account, its debts, and its expected donations.

Nonetheless, the board met on December 27, 1995, and decided to demote Adair to the position of fundraiser. She demanded that she be given a grievance hearing as set forth in her employment contract, and she hired a lawyer to accompany her to that hearing, which took place as part of a regular board meeting in early January 1996.

A group of Habitat employees had gathered in behalf of Adair as board chairwoman and Homestead City Councilwoman Eliza Perry opened the discussion. "The board met at a very long meeting a week ago," she began, "and prayerfully, with a great deal of concern and consideration, the board decided to ask [Dorothy] to accept the position as director of development. There was no longer support for [her] in the position of administrator."

"We are very, very sensitive about the tremendous gifts that [Dorothy] has given to this project," she continued. "As I say, this was not a capricious kind of decision at all. We came to it very slowly and very painfully."

Accountant Neven Brail stood up to suggest that to demote Adair -- the organization's best fundraiser -- would not be the wisest course. "In my opinion, Jordan Commons is currently a financially feasible project," he insisted. "Dorothy's commitment to the project, her undying inspiration [and] leadership can bind wounds. Her intelligence can forge creative solutions. Her personal contacts are critical to forging new partnerships and salvaging old ones."

Brail wondered why board members had given Adair no indication of their displeasure: "She was told point blank she had the board's complete confidence, so she focused her people and their efforts outward."

Perry would not hear him out, and the board unanimously voted to place Adair in the fundraising position. She refused to accept the demotion, saying she would not raise funds for an organization whose management she did not believe in.

Within days the board fired her and terminated Robin Adair's contract.

It took four months for the board to hire a new executive director. In the interim the position was filled by Dick Weber, Habitat International's regional director for Florida. Weber immediately laid off two of the highest-paid staff members: Adair's close friend Amy Bejarano, who as assistant executive director was earning $37,500 a year; and Bruce Cutler, a construction supervisor earning $35,000. Two clerical workers were also let go. The departure of Cutler and Bejarano exacerbated a problem that began with the Adairs' termination: No one in the organization understood the entire project. Who would advise Weber?

Adair says she twice offered to help him, but he refused her assistance. The police were even called to the Habitat office when Adair attempted to visit to clear up some insurance matters, says Josephine Mitchell, a former officer staffer who was later laid off.

To save more money, Weber decided to drop plans for the water-treatment plant, a move that delayed the project even further because Habitat would now have to obtain permits to hook up to Dade County's sewer system. He also decided to drop another innovative feature environmentally sound parking places and to begin using a $500,000 line of credit from BankAtlantic to pay overhead costs.

In April of last year the board hired a new executive director, Joseph Ciarmataro, who for ten years had worked in Boston city government, including two years at the Boston Housing Authority. Since he arrived, Habitat has paved the main road and put doors and windows in the unfinished houses. The interiors have not been completed, and they still are not connected to the county sewage system. Neither Ciarmataro nor the board has raised additional funds.

Instead, Homestead Habitat for Humanity has borrowed heavily. The organization now owes BankAtlantic $500,000 on a loan meant to provide a temporary source of cash to pay contractors. The money has been used to pay personnel costs. As a consequence, the bank's backing of the project was put in jeopardy. "We are disappointed because it appears that our funding has been used for overhead expenses instead of houses," wrote chairman Alan Levan in a December letter to Ciarmataro. "Furthermore, we are in great danger of losing a [$375,000] government grant that we worked so hard to secure. It is our intention to fund the last $25,000 of our $500,000 line of credit. Beyond this gesture, we will need to see financial projections and controls which will assure the further success of this project."

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