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Former President Carter kicks off World Habitat Day at work site

By Paul Courson and Andrew Katz, CNN
Former President Jimmy Carter, second from left, and his wife Rosalynn, right, help build a house in Washington on Monday.
Former President Jimmy Carter, second from left, and his wife Rosalynn, right, help build a house in Washington on Monday.
  • The former president is marking 27 years of working on Habitat projects
  • This year's weeklong project has a target of 86 homes, matching Carter's age
  • Projects are under way in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Minnesota and Alabama

Washington (CNN) -- Just out of the hospital and standing in a heavy downpour, former President Jimmy Carter was swinging a hammer Monday at a housing construction project in the nation's capital, helping to mark World Habitat Day.

Carter has long been part of Habitat for Humanity projects to repair and rebuild homes in declining neighborhoods.

"I was only 60 years old when I began these 27 years of working on Habitat projects," Carter said, adding, "This is a very wonderful opportunity for us to publicize the continuing need of good housing for people not only in this country but around the world."

The United Nations annually designates the first Monday in October as World Habitat Day to call attention to the need for adequate shelter worldwide.

In the United States, the number of houses the group hopes to provide through this year's weeklong Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project is tied to the former president's age. "To build, repair, or renovate 86 homes in honor of President Carter's 86th birthday last week," explained Habitat for Humanity CEO Jonathan Reckford.

The group worked Monday on a gutted, older rowhouse in the District of Columbia near Gallaudet University, repairing it rather than starting anew. At the same time, workers started fresh construction on a lot across the street from the rowhouse. The volunteer effort is designed to provide below-market, affordable housing.

After spending about an hour under a rainy sky at several neighborhood construction sites, the former president took questions about his recent health scare, and whether he'd be able to continue his annual weeklong volunteer effort to help build homes for the needy.

"I had a two-day vacation," Carter said, referring to his hospital stay at the end of September in Cleveland, "I'm perfectly OK, it was just a temporary stomach virus."

Walking among construction sites, Carter used a bubble level and a hammer to align and nail together framework. As he walked the grounds, he smiled, shook hands with volunteers, and was given pats on the back as workers recognized him.

Carter, dressed in a windbreaker, work trousers and a heavy denim shirt, was hard to pick out from the group of volunteer construction workers, since the former president had the hood of the windbreaker pulled up against the rain. His hat, with the "Habitat" logo, eventually became soaked as he pulled nails from the pouch of his construction apron, and bent down to lift lumber and framing into position.

He and the former first lady have partnered their non-profit foundation with Habitat and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to concentrate their efforts around Washington; Baltimore and Annapolis in Maryland; Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota; and Birmingham, Alabama.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan noted this is the first time his agency has provided funding directly to non-profit groups, with the Habitat organization this year getting the largest share of a portion drawn from economic stimulus money.

"We're using taxpayer money very wisely and effectively," he said, "by leveraging it through Habitat." Donovan said the money helps pay for new construction and renovation of rundown housing, and that a portion of it is used to save homes in foreclosure as part of neighborhood stabilization efforts.

"We get great bang for our buck," Donovan said.

The Carters annually devote a week of their time to the construction push. His last efforts in Washington were in 1992.