From The Sunday TimesJanuary 4, 2009
Charity homes built by Hollywood start to crumbleJohn Harlow in Los Angeles
RESIDENTS of a model housing estate bankrolled by Hollywood celebrities and hand-built by Jimmy Carter, the former US president, are complaining that it is falling apart.
Fairway Oaks was built on northern Florida wasteland by 10,000 volunteers, including Carter, in a record 17-day “blitz” organised by the charity Habitat for Humanity.
Eight years later it is better known for cockroaches, mildew and mysterious skin rashes.
A forthcoming legal battle over Fairway Oaks threatens the reputation of a charity envied for the calibre of its celebrity supporters, who range from Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt to Colin Firth, Christian Bale and Helena Bonham Carter.
The case could challenge the bedrock philosophy behind Habitat for Humanity, claiming that using volunteers, rather than professional builders, is causing as many problems as it solves.
April Charney, a lawyer representing many of the 85 homeowners in Fairway Oaks, said she had no problems taking on Habitat for Humanity, despite its status as a “darling of liberal social activists”. She said the charity should have told people that part of the estate had been built on a rubbish dump.
One man pulled up his floorboards to find rubbish 5ft deep under his kitchen. Other complaints include cracking walls and rotting door frames that let in rats and ants. Many residents have complained of mildew and mysterious skin rashes.
One resident said her children were suffering from skin complaints. “The intentions are good, but when the politicians and big-shot stars have left we’re stuck with the consequences. This house looks pretty but inside it either stinks or sweats,” she said.
Judy Hall, the charity’s local development director, said recently that it had been dealing with about 30 complaints. She added that skilled work was carried out by professionals.
Some residents dismiss their neighbours’ worries. Diennal Fields, 51, said people did not know how to look after their homes: “It’s simple stuff: if there is mildew, don’t get a lawyer, get a bottle of bleach.”