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View Count: 142 |  Publish Date: October 09, 2013
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Jimmy, Rosalynn Carter hammer away at homelessness

Hes a former U.S. president, a Nobel laureate and a best-selling author. But Jimmy Carter says he gets more recognition for his work with Habitat for Humanity than anything else.
He and his wife Rosalynn have spent a week every year since 1984 doing hands-on construction with Habitat around the globe. On Tuesday, the Carters unstrapped their tool belts after installing and casing the front door of a renovated San Jose house to sit down with reporters. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Could you share some personal reflections on your work with Habitat? What do you think about while youre hammering and sawing? What are some of the most unlikely and most enduring friendships youve formed?
Jimmy Carter: Im a furniture maker; Ive made about 100 pieces - chifforobes, tables, chairs - very fine work. But construction is challenging. Each job requires concentration on exactly what kind of bit, how many screws - the details.
The most exciting times are when the families move in. I still remember our first (Habitat project), a six-story apartment in New York. (One man), his name was Roosevelt, had been living on cardboard boxes, making a living by picking up empty Coke bottles and cans. Then he moved in to his apartment and (became the building superintendent).
There was another woman we met in Philadelphia who had a part-time school lunchroom job. The second year, she came running out and said, Guess what, Im an apprentice in the carpenters union.
Rosalynn Carter: Our first project was so memorable and exciting. There was a section with old linoleum, they had me take it up. Then they gave me sheet flooring to nail down.
JC: She never had nailed anything before besides a tack on the walls for a picture.
RC: Anyone can (hammer). From that building you could look down at a woman cooking on rocks and you could see Wall Street at the same time.
Q: You clearly enjoy working together.
JC: Shes a lot more bossy than the house supervisor. She wants everything to be perfect. We get along fairly well. Weve had 67 years together.
RC: We know what we like to do; we always put the porches on.
JC: I make them provide me with plans of the houses. Often theyre too elaborate. I insist on four corners only. Every extra corner adds a half days work.
Q: The couple moving into this house (in San Jose) said they never could have afforded a house otherwise.
JC: By definition, every Habitat family wouldnt qualify for a regular mortgage. Theyre at the lower edge of the economy but they have to earn enough money to make monthly payments because we dont give away houses. Even in places like Mumbai, India, people raise enough money to pay.
Weve built homes for 10 people for as little as $300 in Nicaragua in the jungle; the Sandinistas drove us up. The land there couldnt support a crop but it had wonderful clay for molding bricks and roof tiles. We made frames and only had to buy a little bit of cement and nails. It was the cheapest house ever.
RC: The people there were living in grass huts with three sides. And the people making the bricks and tiles started a business, making them for the next community.
JC: The smallest house was in Haiti, it was 200 square feet. In South Africa and the Philippines, we build houses that are 300 square feet. Its the size of a U.S. living room.
RC: A woman in the Philippines that we built a house for was living with her children in an abandoned septic tank.
JC: Covered up with a piece of plastic.
RC: She came walking in the door (of her new house) with tears running down her cheeks.
Q: What are your concerns about the government shutdown and its impact on the economy?
JC: Since I left the White House, the disparity between the haves and have-nots has more than doubled. The middle class is getting squeezed out. The U.S. has $16 trillion in indebtedness that has to be addressed. The first ones to be hurt dont have lobbyists; those are the ones left behind.
Q: How can Habitat and similar programs expand?
JC: When I go to foreign countries, I meet with the king, queen, president, prime minister. I encourage them to adopt the Habitat model. They can sell concrete blocks and mortar mix on credit at minimal cost, let families build their own houses and give them 10 years to pay back. That lets government have the same impact as Habitat does.
Q: The homeownership rate is now the lowest in 30 years. How much impact do Habitat and other nonprofits have?
JC: Everyone says, You built one house, but millions of people dont have a house. But the impact on this couple when they get this house - thats profound.
The other thing Habitat does is set an example of how do you deal with hardworking, low-income people. Address their basic human rights - a decent place to live.
A woman (we met on this trip) gave heart-rending testimony. Her father was a janitor who came here from Mexico. Their family slept in a converted garage. Then they got a Habitat house. She and her sister have both finished college. Their father is still a janitor, but with an (affordable) Habitat house could put them through college.
Q: Habitat relies on volunteers. How can our society encourage more volunteerism?
JC: My brother Billys widow is in charge of Habitat corporate contributions. She gets Dow Chemical to give insulation, Whirlpool gives a new stove and refrigerator for every house. They encourage their employees to work. Often we get a company to (sponsor) a house - they give $40,000 cash with the promise their employees have a chance to come and work on it. The corporate world has been very generous to Habitat. Major banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America are very giving (donating foreclosed homes for rehabbing).
The main thing Rosalynn and I do - although we hung a door this morning - is to talk to (journalists). Thats what we use to benefit Habitat the most. Everyone who reads your article knows to contact Habitat and say they want to volunteer.
Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: csaid@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @csaid

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Time: 0:28  |  News Code: 331289  |  Site: San Francisco Chronicle
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