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Jimmy Carter uses a table saw

Former President Jimmy Carter visits East Oakland Habitat for Humanity site

on October 8, 2013

Last week, eight Habitat for Humanity workers were robbed at gunpoint and one was assaulted at Brookfield Court. This week, construction at the site of 12 new homes in East Oakland got a boost from a former U.S. President and First Lady.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter came to Oakland on Sunday and Monday as part of the 30th anniversary of the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project, in which the couple spends a week each year building and repairing homes.

“Rosie and I really get a lot of credit this year because we’ve been at it so long and we’re so old,” said the former President, now 89.  “But we’re just one of the other Habitat house volunteers.” The former First Lady added, “I’ve become a very accomplished carpenter over the past 30 years.”

“It’s not often that we get the chance — that the public gets the chance — just to hang out with the Prez,” said Janice Jensen, president and chief executive officer of  Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley.

Habitat’s East Bay/Silicon Valley operation has made a “very long-term” commitment to East Oakland, according to Jensen. As an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, the group builds and repairs homes throughout Alameda, Contra Costa, and Santa Clara counties, but focuses most of its efforts on Oakland and San Jose.

Since the East Bay affiliate started in 1986, it has built almost 500 homes in the area. In 2012, the group had over 5,000 people volunteer.

Former US President Jimmy Carter, left, talks with Habitat volunteer Rich Lewis, right.

Former US President Jimmy Carter, left, talks with Habitat volunteer Rich Lewis, right.

Habitat has long been known for building new homes. However, in the wake of the recession and the foreclosure crisis, Habitat’s local affiliate has increasingly focused on repairs, often for impoverished elderly people who can’t afford to keep their homes safe and livable, and renovations, in which the group refurbishes and sells homes that have been foreclosed.

Jensen says that there has been a high demand for renovated homes because it takes less time for a family to move in. For new homes, individual families must put in 500 hours of “sweat equity” working at the construction site or volunteering at a Habitat ReStore center for about a year. However, a family might move in to a renovated home in as little as three or four months’ time, a huge benefit for those who are in crisis. Habitat families buy the homes at market price but don’t have to pay interest.

One of the future residents of Brookfield Court, Ayoda Werede, said that her home with Habitat is “a godsend.”

Werede, 26, will be moving into the Brookfield house with her mother and her two younger brothers. For over a year, the family lived in a cramped studio apartment in Oakland to make ends meet before they moved to their current two-bedroom unit.

Werede works full time in a home for the disabled and volunteers in the maternity ward at Highland Hospital in Oakland. Her mother is a certified nursing assistant.  Together, they raise Werede’s brothers. With a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of North Texas, Werede hopes to go to medical school.

Owning a new home once seemed so far out of reach that it “wasn’t even in the equation,” said Werede. Back when they lived in the studio, “it was very unstable and it was very hard to make long-term plans,” she added. “But now, it’s possible.”

During the Carters’ visit to Oakland, security was a clear concern for U.S. Secret Service agents clearing bystanders in front of the Paramount Theater before the president arrived. Habitat for Humanity also had to increase private security for the press conference on Monday.

The Carters typically alternate between domestic and international locations, with last year’s project taking place in Haiti. This year, President Carter and First Lady Carter are volunteering at projects in Oakland, San Jose, Denver, New York City, and Union Beach, N.J. Country music stars Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood also volunteered at the East Oakland build site on Monday.

During the press conference at Brookfield Court, President Carter sounded off on his reasons for volunteering with Habitat.

“I think that to improve the quality of life for the American people and to give them hope for the future, to have a decent place in which your family can live … is one of the best investments we can make,” he said.

Habitat in the East Bay and Silicon Valley has historically received about 40 percent of its funding from the government and 40 percent of its funding from donations. However, the group has faced dramatic cuts from the government since the recession.

“The main responsibility for providing affordable housing rests with the federal government, the local government and the state government,” said President Carter at the press conference.

If he were in the Oval Office today, President Carter said he thought it would be important for people to “cooperate with each other and be a little bit more flexible.”


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