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.

Nina Betancourt strolls toward the skeleton of an unfinished house in an unfinished development called Jordan Commons, located in a community north of Homestead named Princeton. Once the site of the largest and most ambitious low-income housing project ever undertaken by any chapter of Habitat for Humanity, Jordan Commons now sits in tatters amid dust and weeds, a woeful example of grand aspirations sunk by infighting and egos.

In September 1995, volunteers began constructing frames and raising roofs for the first 15 of a planned 187 homes. Within months those houses should have been completed and occupied by economically disadvantaged families who had successfully sought and worked for the right to purchase them from the Homestead branch of Habitat for Humanity. Then the next phase of construction would commence. And then the next. And the next. Until the $22 million Jordan Commons was a reality.

It didn't work out that way.
Not one of the fifteen houses is complete, and several stand as little more than suggestions. As for the fifteen families who had expected to become homeowners, they are represented only by signs inscribed with their names and stuck in the ground.

Four years ago, when Homestead Habitat for Humanity applied for Dade County permits to subdivide a 40-acre parcel of land, grade roads, install sewer and water pipes, and construct the houses, Nina Betancourt led the local opposition to the project. She and her neighbors were familiar with Habitat homes in other parts of South Dade, and they didn't like what they saw: tiny wooden boxes bereft of any design features, the kind of structures easily identified as poor people's homes. "When we heard it was going to be a Habitat development," Betancourt recalls, "the neighbors were very concerned about what that meant."

The 41-year-old real estate broker and civic leader hosted community meetings at her home, where skeptical Princeton residents were able to pepper Habitat representatives with questions. Betancourt's opposition dissipated at those discussions as the Habitat people outlined their proposal to create a type of community that had never been built for the poor -- or the rich, for that matter. Contributing to the appeal: Each element of a Jordan Commons house -- frame, roof, windows, plumbing, solar water-heating -- would help families conserve energy; the placement of homes and the design of roads would minimize the need for automobiles; cooling shade trees would be planted by the thousands; amenities would include small parks, a gymnasium, and playing fields; and mothers would be able to walk to the Jordan Commons day-care center with their children and pick up groceries from a store at a community center on their way home in the evening. Recalls Betancourt: "There were those of us who said, 'Gee, a project of this magnitude is interesting because of the ideas they had for energy efficiency.'"

It takes only a few minutes for Betancourt to circle the cluster of nascent homes and construction rubble. Her concern is palpable. After all, she went from skeptic to believer, and was instrumental in fostering the community approval that allowed the project to proceed. Now it sits uneasily in a sort of development purgatory -- not exactly hell, but definitely not heaven, either.

Homestead Habitat for Humanity has offered no clear plan for completing these 15 shells, let alone the 170 additional planned homes. The money to do so is simply not there. Officials from Habitat's world headquarters -- known as Habitat for Humanity International -- say they will help bail out Homestead, but under their leadership Jordan Commons is likely to be scaled back. "Habitat for Humanity International is committed to completing the whole project," vows Millard Fuller, president of the globe-spanning Christian charity. "We are not saying to you that we are going to complete it the way it is now."

A millionaire lawyer, Fuller founded Habitat in 1976 in Americus, Georgia. His motive behind abandoning a lucrative career: to fulfill the Christian principle of loving one's neighbor. The charity's "ministry" is dedicated to the elimination of substandard housing. Some 1320 independent Habitat chapters worldwide have built 50,000 houses in the last two decades.

While Fuller initially embraced the innovative concept of Jordan Commons, he soon grew disaffected. He believed the houses were too big and too extravagant -- three bedrooms, two bathrooms, cathedral ceilings in some rooms, central air conditioning. (He doesn't even have central air in his own home.) The money for such luxuries, he felt, would be better spent building more houses. "You must always realize that the bulk of our support for the ministry comes from middle-income, middle-class people," Fuller wrote in a December 1993 letter to Homestead Habitat's executive director. "Many of them live in very modest houses themselves and they don't feel right building houses for 'the poor' if the houses being built are better than the houses they live in!"

That is precisely the type of thinking that worries Nina Betancourt and other residents in Princeton, where many homes are spacious and sit on two-acre estates. "If they downsize or modify this plan," she says, "it would be the community's worst nightmare come true. I'm talking about people in the community who never really compromised. There were those of us who were willing to give it a chance, but there were still those in the community telling us, 'You'll see, you'll see, it's a pipe dream.'"

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.

Even before the Burdines homes were finished, the Homestead board of directors fired the general contractor and asked Robin Adair, who at the time was the board's vice president, to be the general contractor on Jordan Commons, which was ready to break ground at a former tomato field on SW 129th Avenue between 242nd and 246th streets. Adair would take the job only if given a salary, and so the board agreed to pay him $65,000 per year. (Dorothy Adair's salary as executive director was $50,000 per year.) "He was well aware of what was going on, very knowledgeable about everything to do with construction," board member John Hollon relates. "The board decided it was not really the best situation to have a man and his wife -- as his boss -- working for you, but they were such good people we decided let's try it and see what works out. Things went sailing along. We finished the Burdines project and started on Jordan Commons."

Dorothy Adair keeps a framed letter from former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros. Dated October 5, 1993, it attests to her aggressiveness as a fundraiser. In a handwritten note below the closing, Cisneros added that he had spoken personally with the Dade County manager to expedite the processing of a $3.6 million federal grant for land acquisition, roads, and sewer and water connections for Jordan Commons. The letter and the grant itself arose from a September 1993 hurricane fact-finding trip to South Florida by Cisneros and Pres. Bill Clinton, who delivered a speech at the Homestead Senior Center. Dorothy Adair, ever resourceful, had taken the opportunity to buttonhole the president and describe her plans for Jordan Commons, which then was only a dream. "Clinton said he liked the project and asked what he could do to help us," Adair recalls. "I said, 'We could use four million dollars.' He said, 'I think we can do that.'"

With provisional approval from the president himself, Adair leaped forward. She obtained the services of an expert grant-writer, and turned again to architect Armando Montero for design ideas.

Adair would also bring other experienced people into the planning process as formal and informal advisers. Among them: Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, dean of the University of Miami's School of Architecture and a nationally recognized advocate for the design of traditional communities that encourage walking and sociability. Plater-Zyberk agreed to consult with the less-experienced Adairs, who would seek her advice when engineering and construction problems arose. Dorothy Adair would also use the prestige of Plater-Zyberk's name as currency when she spoke to potential donors and other experts.

Jack Parker headed Jordan Commons's environmental management committee. A pioneering energy-conservation researcher and chairman of Florida International University's environmental science department, he had proposed energy-saving features for the Burdines houses.

Susan Barryman, a project manager from DERM, not only planned the solar-energy portion of the project but also arranged an expansive two-day planning charette in July 1993 at the Kendall campus of Miami-Dade Community College.

"We had individual groups talking about what we should do about hot-water heating while we had other people working on fundraising while we had designers working on the architectural lab," recalls Parker. "One of my students worked on the community garden."

Together with interested private citizens, the experts planned each aspect of Jordan Commons in its most minute detail. The working groups posed hypothetical problems and proposed solutions in the form of design elements; they even attempted to identify funding sources for their proposed features. "This wasn't just a show of empathy," Plater-Zyberk recalls. "This was people trying to work on things and forge new ground together. Everyone there was well-versed and realistic. We all knew what the parameters of Habitat are, what the energy-conservation dream was. Everyone had enough practical experience that it wasn't just blue sky."

By the time the charette concluded, the group had conceived plans for
*a "cool community" in which design features and landscaping would lower the temperature of the entire neighborhood, conserving energy and minimizing ozone destruction. Jordan Commons became a demonstration project as part of a national program endorsed by the Clinton Administration. Parker and others proposed roads made of light-color concrete and homes with bright white roofs that would reflect heat. The houses would also feature tinted windows shaded by wide, overhanging eaves. More than 2200 trees would be planted to reduce temperatures and cut air-conditioning costs.

*roads to be laid out in a pinwheel configuration so residents could walk to any section of the development in five minutes, thus limiting the need for cars. A pathway would lead to a stop on Metro-Dade's new busway, a special traffic lane for county buses along South Dixie Highway.

*sturdy houses to be framed in steel or built of cinder block and covered with stucco, more durable than wood. Roofs were designed to last 30 years. Windows on opposite sides of the houses would promote cross-ventilation. Manuals were written so residents would learn how to maintain their homes and how to conserve energy.

*an on-site waste-water recycling plant to dramatically reduce residents' sewer bills, while also decreasing the overall cost of the houses because Habitat would not have to pay sewage-impact fees. DERM officials also planned a gray-water recycling system for 40 of the homes in which water from sinks and washing machines would be filtered through special septic tanks before draining into the ground.

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."

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."

Through the county, Ciarmataro has requested $400,000 in additional funds from the federal government as reimbursement for engineering fees on the paving project, which Habitat had paid from its own funds. But according to Adair, those fees had already been paid by a grant from We Will Rebuild, the charity devoted to reconstruction after Hurricane Andrew.

But even if the fees hadn't been paid with grant money, Habitat should have had almost enough to pay for them from the savings accrued when the water-treatment plant and special parking places were eliminated. "The people in place," Adair says, "do not understand the environmental features or how the whole project works together."

Earlier this month Dade County Commissioner Katy Sorenson called a meeting to examine the problems of Jordan Commons and to discuss its future. Assembled around a table in the auditorium of the South Dade regional library, a group of community, government, and business leaders and academics sketched out a rough proposal for reviving the project and financing future construction.

Among them were the well-wishers and experts Dorothy Adair had originally recruited and who had planned its features during the 1993 charette. In the last few months, Adair had helped gather these leaders in an effort to revive construction. At the February 7 meeting with Sorenson they offered to work in partnership with Homestead Habitat and Habitat International to attract new funding sources and provide the technical expertise necessary to complete the development. They include Steven Kirk, whose Everglades Community Association has just completed a 200-home housing project for farm workers and who has assisted Dorothy Adair from the inception of Jordan Commons; architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk; Mark Buckbinder, an official from the Washington, D.C., Local Initiatives Support Corp., which offers technical assistance to low-income housing developers; Jack Parker and Tom Wilson (co-chairman of the Joint Center of Environmental and Urban Problems) at FIU; and Doug Yoder, assistant director of DERM. Al Alvarez, chairman of the Naranja-Princeton Community Development Council, and Rene Infante, chairman of the council's housing and economic development committee, also attended.

"Jordan Commons is important -- people want promises kept," says Steven Kirk. "One of the important things to us is that other community development councils keep their promises. If we back down, it makes all of our jobs harder."

With such responsible partners in the wings, BankAtlantic has renewed its commitment to provide funding and may even reopen its $500,000 line of credit, says David Finkelman, a spokesman for the Fort Lauderdale-based financial institution.

Notably absent from Sorenson's meeting was Dorothy Adair. That's because Habitat officials said they would walk out if she attended. She deferred to their wishes.

That same week, Adair and her lawyers met with Habitat officials, their attorneys, and attorneys for Habitat's insurers to discuss settlement of a claim she has made for $18,000 in back pay. Adair also has threatened to sue Habitat's board for defamation and for wrongfully firing her.

Even though she says she wants to sue the board and collect sizable damages, Adair continues to hope that Jordan Commons can be built the way she first envisioned it: "Since our promise to the community was that we'd build something they'd be happy to have in the neighborhood, as well as to build a model for sustainable development of low-cost housing, it was important to get folks involved with Habitat who understood that, had the ability to carry out the project, and were committed to its environmental aspects.

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