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Wink Dickey walks across a patch of dirt in South Phoenix, giving a tour of an imaginary community on a street that, at the moment, leads nowhere. He points to houses that don't exist yet--the Target house," "the SRP house" and "the PNI house." Across the street is a park that's not yet built.
Dickey is executive director of the local arm of Habitat for Humanity, a national organization devoted to building and rehabilitating homes for low-income families. Habitat is trying to build the 196-home South Ranch planned community here, near the foot of South Mountain at 16th Street and Alta Vista Road.
Habitat sees low-income families realizing the American dream at South Ranch, which would be the largest Habitat project in the country.
Most of the rest of South Phoenix sees an unfinished slum (Kicking the Habitat," April 6).
So while Habitaters were planning their grand opening, starring Jimmy Carter--the former president has been a pitchman for Habitat's parent organization since 1984--opponents were discussing different slogans for their picket signs.
And while Phoenix's biggest business players were sending letters persuading their employees to come down and swing a hammer, the neighbors were calling their friends to come down and protest.
Now the fight has moved downtown.
South Phoenix city councilmember Cody Williams wrote to Habitat in July offering five options. Chief among them was a land swap for parcels of city-owned lots, many of which were home to condemned property in troubled neighborhoods. At the other end of the spectrum, the city offered to help Habitat create a development the neighbors could live with. Habitat responded by scheduling a grand opening September 17 on the South Ranch site.
Not ones to be ignored, Williams and state legislator David Armstead flexed political muscle and contacted Habitat's corporate sponsors.
"I told them I would hate for Jimmy [Carter] and everyone to be met by 100 or so people picketing," Williams says. "I recommended they postpone the opening.
"I tried to have them come to the table voluntarily, and it didn't happen," Williams says. "Now I'm going to make it happen."
Last week began what is likely to be a flurry of meetings in an attempt to hammer out a plan between Habitat, South Phoenix residents and the city. "I've been with Habitat for 11 years, and I've never seen this kind of opposition before," Dickey says. "Most communities have welcomed Habitat with open arms."
Most communities are not South Phoenix.
Part of the opposition's problem with Habitat is that its board of directors is composed primarily of upper-income folks from Paradise Valley, Scottsdale and north Phoenix. No one on the board actually lives in South Phoenix.
Too many other do-gooders have gone to South Phoenix with big ideas for housing and how to otherwise help low-income minorities. The south side was left with monuments to unfinished or otherwise bad ideas, like high-density apartment complexes, HUD housing developments and the never-completed gentrification of Broadway Road.
More than 65 percent of all of the public and private low-income housing in Phoenix is located south of Thomas Road. A good deal of it is south of the Salt River.
Frankly, the neighbors argue, if the South Ranch project is such a swell idea, why not build it in the Habitat board's neighborhoods?
But this particular piece of land in South Phoenix is what started the whole thing. In March 1993, Valley National Bank gave the 42-acre parcel of land to Habitat for Humanity, which brought federal Community Reinvestment Act points and seemingly good public relations. The bank was about to be purchased by Bank One.
VNB had ended up with the property after foreclosing on R.A. Homes Inc./Bowen Construction Limited Partnership. By the time they lost the property, the developers had city approval for a subdivision, but hadn't built anything.
Consequently, Habitat didn't have to go through the normal community input and city-review steps to develop the property. The only thing it needed to start a house was a building permit.
Things took off and snowballed. Habitaters enlisted support from Salt River Project, Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., Target and various other corporate money givers.
Meanwhile, neighbors got wind of the project and set about organizing. By last month, they had secured more than 150 signatures on petitions asking to stop South Ranch.
In March 1994, Habitat brought in Dickey, who is a sort of cross between housing missionary and Habitat carpetbagger. He's spent more than a decade with the organization in Memphis and, most recently, Dallas.
Dickey took up residence in South Phoenix and moved Habitat's office, which was in Scottsdale, into a trailer on the South Ranch site.
But by then, things had already grown ugly between Habitat and the neighborhood.
"It took a couple of hours to get them [neighbors] to just stop yelling at us," Dickey says. "We are willing to work with people, but I know that we're never going to convince everyone."
Habitat International, which began in 1976, has built more than 30,000 houses in 38 countries and has, for the most part, a pretty good reputation.
The organization traditionally builds or restores one house at a time with volunteer labor, giving a family its own home and helping improve troubled neighborhoods.
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