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Small-town group builds toward global goal of decent housing

Jonas and Lilly May Bownes lived 17 years in a rattle-trap shack where the rain came through the ceiling into so many pans that the noise kept them awake at night. Now they use the shack for firewood in their tidy new house across the street. It was sold to them at cost, with a no-interest loan, by Habitat for Humanity, a fast-growing Christian organization that seeks to eradicate ``poverty housing'' in the world.

Based in this small, peanut-country town of gracious verandas and weather-beaten tin-roof shacks, Habitat for Humanity has 117 affiliated projects around the United States and sponsors 25 projects in 14 developing countries.

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Next week, the board of directors -- including former President Jimmy Carter of nearby Plains and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young -- will consider project proposals affecting 27 US cities, as well as two in the Philippines, two in the Solomon Islands, and two more in Haiti, where Habitat already has some under way.

Habitat builds or renovates houses, usually with the help and counsel of the families who will occupy them. Then it sells them using 20-year, no-interest loans. The Bownes pay $65 a month for their mortgage, $15 a month more than they paid in rent for their shanty across the street. Typically, the new homeowners are obligated to put several hundred hours of work into their own house, and another hundred hours into building someone else's.

According to founder and director Millard Fuller, Habitat builds about a house and a half a day somewhere in the world, and the pace will be two a day by the end of the year. Mr. Fuller, a lanky lawyer from Alabama, plans to have Habitat projects in 1,000 US cities and 36 other countries within seven years. In 10 years, he hopes to grow to 2,000 US cities and 60 countries. ``I believe this is a movement,'' he says. ``And if it is a movement, it will continue to grow geometrically.''

But he does not expect Habitat to reach its prodigious goal of making decent housing universal on its own. Instead, he wants his organization to create ``yeast spots'' to spur a wider effort. He wants Habitat's work ``to make shelter a matter of conscience in this country.''

Fuller founded his organization a decade ago. But it was only around 1983, when Mr. Carter took an active interest in Habitat, that it began to achieve national attention. Carter, who has some carpentry skill, has done some well-publicized stints with Habitat work crews, including one last month in Nicaragua.

Two-thirds of Habitat's staff of about 90 at the Americus headquarters are volunteers who live in group housing and get $20 a week for food. The money that homeowners repay for their loans is recycled into new projects. The organization has only begun full-time fund raising in the past year.

Habitat does not accept every family that applies. Not only are a few of them too well off, but some don't have the ability to repay even the low Habitat mortgages. These people must look elsewhere, as Habitat attempts to be scrupulous in maintaining a partnership with its clients, not charity case relations.

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Habitat accepts no government money, in order to maintain its independence.

Government housing programs have failed for two reasons, says Fuller: First, the government owns the housing, becoming a massive landlord; second, the government has not consulted the poor on what they want, from the color of their house or apartment to the design of playgrounds.

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