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The Jimmy Carter Work Project brought affordable homes to northeast Charlotte

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Elvis Menayese
The Carter Work Project on East 19th Street provided 14 affordable homes for residents in 1987.

It’s been over a week since former President Jimmy Carter started receiving hospice care at his home in Georgia. The 98-year-old is the oldest living president in American history. In the late 1980s, the Carter Work Project and Habitat for Humanity came to northeast Charlotte to address the need for affordable housing. They built 14 homes that sold for about $30,000 each. Today, the prices for those homes have skyrocketed. Some residents who still live there fondly remember the efforts that made homeownership a reality.

After his presidency ended in 1981, Jimmy Carter, alongside his wife Rosalynn, joined Habitat for Humanity to provide homes for families in need. Their first mission with the Carter Work Project began in New York in 1984. Charlotte was the third city for the project. The moment was captured in a video at the Optimist Park worksite by the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. The former president spoke about the task ahead.

“This is by far the most ambitious because, with all volunteer work, we’re building 14 homes in just five days,” Carter said. “This is our first day. By tonight, we’ll have the roof on and have it sheathed in and put the shingles on tomorrow.”

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Habitat for Humanity of the Charlotte Region
Former President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn (second row with pith helmets) stand in front of a house on the corner of East 19th Street and Julia Maulden Place.

At the time, Optimist Park was viewed as a struggling part of Charlotte: 97% of the houses in the neighborhood were in poor condition. That’s according to research by the UNC Charlotte J. Murrey Atkins Library. After the success of the Carter Work Project, more homes were later built in the area, increasing the homeownership rates. Since then, the neighborhood has evolved even more.

For example, Optimist Park and the nearby NoDa neighborhoods are hot spots for developers interested in building and repurposing existing structures. The Parkwood light rail station for the Lynx Blue Line opened five years ago making this area even more appealing.

Across the road from the station is East 19th Street, where Harold Miller helped to build his home 36 years ago. He has fond memories of that week with Habitat and the Carter Work Project.

“I think it was nice. You know, because some people would not have been able to get them if they didn’t go through that program,” Miller said. “They had to put in 300 hours, but it was worth it.”

Miller said he had multiple roles in the project.

 “We were painting poles, laying the foundation, getting it ready,” Miller said. “We did cement, you know, driveways (and) did some steps.”

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Elvis Menayese
Harold stands underneath the porch of his he helped build in 1987.

A few doors down from Miller is a dark blue house that’s about 1,100 square feet. Longtime neighbors Gwendolyn Burris and her husband, John Burris, live there. After the couple helped build their home, they moved in with their four daughters. The three-bedroom home sits on what residents called “Miracle on 19th Street.”

Burris said the anticipation of former President Carter’s arrival brought joy to those involved.

 “We were so excited, and I mean, he ate with us, and we had a ball and the balloons; I mean, it was so exciting,” Burris said. “I just looked around, and I said, ‘Lord, look how good God is helping us get a home.’”

President Carter said about 350 volunteers from 28 states and people from Canada helped to build all 14 homes in a week. Claire Trexler was one of those volunteers. She says a faith-based approach to the project is one of the reasons people traveled from different regions to help.

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Elvis Menayese
John Burris and Gwendolyn Burris outside their home on East 19th Street on Feb. 23, 2023.

“We believe this was an idea that was just blessed by God,” Trexler said. “When you talked about it, what you found was that people reacted to the ability to give what it was they had to give.”

A few years before the project, seven local churches — Christ Episcopal, Myers Park Presbyterian, Myers Park United Methodist, Myers Park Baptist, Covenant Presbyterian, St. Mark’s Lutheran and the Little Church on the Lane, came together in 1983 and founded Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte. Now known as Habitat for Humanity of the Charlotte Region. Carter said the organization demonstrates that a lot can be done with a small amount of money, a lot of volunteers, and a proper attitude to support poor people.

“I think the whole neighborhood and maybe the whole city of Charlotte and a lot of other communities will be more aware of the needs of the homeless and also aware that people who are more fortunate can actually do something about it,” Carter said.

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Elvis Menayese
Claire Trexler took a stroll around the neighbourhood on Feb. 24, 2023.

As the residents continue to witness gentrification in and around their neighborhood, Miller said he intends to remain in the place he’s called home for over 30 years.

 “They are taking over, trying to take over. They want to buy us out; they want to know if you want to sell. I ain’t trying to sell it,” Miller said. “I’m right where I need to be. The train station is right over there; I can go down the street and catch the bus. You know, it’s inconvenient for me to move.”

For Burris, the changing neighborhood has another effect.

 “They’re making our taxes go up real high where we didn’t have to pay taxes like that. Our taxes run up almost close to $3,000 this year,” Burris said. “And that’s a lot for older people because we’re on a fixed income, and it’s just a whole lot.”

Despite concerns about the future of the neighborhood, Miller said he’s grateful to Carter.

“He did do what he said he could do and blessed us,” Miller said.

In honor of former President Carter, Habitat for Humanity is set to bring back the Carter Work Project in October of this year. At least 20 homes will be built in west Charlotte at the Meadows at Plato Price off Morris Field Drive and named after Plato Price School, which closed in the 1960s when desegregation took hold. The development will stretch across nine acres of land in the historically African American neighborhood.

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Corrected: March 2, 2023 at 9:44 AM EST
A previous version of the audio cited the program as "starting in the early 1980s in northeast Charlotte." The Jimmy Carter Work Project started in the early 80s but happened in northeast Charlotte in the late 1980s in 1987. The audio has since then been corrected.
Elvis Menayese is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race and equity for WFAE. He previously was a member of the Queens University News Service. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.