Taking a break from a hard day of work, Dawnette Dixon smiled when asked what she and former President Jimmy Carter talked about as they spruced up her soon-to-be home in Queens Village.
“I said, ‘I’m very happy and thankful,’” recounted Dixon, a public health adviser now living in Brooklyn. “He said, ‘It’s OK.’ He does this all the time.”
Wearing a pair of blue jeans, a blue work shirt and a tool belt around his waist, the 39th U.S. president wielded a circular saw as he and his wife, Rosalynn, worked side-by-side to build a deck behind the two-story home on 112th Road Friday, one of five single-family houses Habitat for Humanity NYC worked to refurbish last week.
“It’s a labor of love,” Carter, now 89, said in front of the home the day before. “You can see lives transform.”
It was nearly three decades ago that the Carters completed their first project with Habitat on the Lower East Side, where many of the homeowners still live in the 19-unit Mascot Flats co-op apartment building.
Jonathan Reckford, chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity International, thanked the former president and first lady for “their incredible service in helping us move closer to a world where everyone has a decent place to call home.
Dixon, 53, said she first learned about Habitat from a seminar conducted by the public-employee union DC37. After hanging drywall in the basement, she said her new Queens Village neighborhood is “perfect.”
Habitat’s local New York City affiliate purchased 38 single-family homes in Queens last year from the New York City Housing Authority for $1 each, most of which had been abandoned for years.
NYCHA acquired the homes, along with dozens of others, in the 1970s and ’80s from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Many of the homes became vacant and fell into disrepair, while others have had public-housing tenants living in them for years.
When NYCHA divested its portfolio, it sold the occupied homes to their residents and the remainders to Habitat, which plans to renovate them in two phases.
The organization relies on public funding — Borough President Helen Marshall allocated some of her budget to the project — corporate sponsors and the work of thousands of volunteers to strip the derelict buildings to their bare bones and build them back up to middle-class family homes.
Jen Knoeber, a volunteer director for Habitat’s Dallas affiliate, made the trip from the Lone Star State to southeast Queens to volunteer her time on the project.
“This is my first time volunteering,” she said, looking back at a home behind her. “It’s nearly indistinguishable from the shell of the house that was here before. At the end of the day, we’ve helped a family come one step closer to achieving the dream of homeownership.”