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HABITAT HAMMERS GOOD WORKS HOME

Habitat for Humanity gets attention from time to time when former President Jimmy Carter volunteers his efforts to work on a house. Carter's visibility brings welcome recognition to the international organization. But the day-to-day work is done by thousands of volunteers who deserve lush accolades for what they contribute to their communities.

Last Sunday, the Buffalo unit of Habitat dedicated the 55th and 56th houses it has turned over to low-income owners in 13 years of existence. Houses at 104 Grey St. and 217 Wood St. on Buffalo's East Side joined the parade of Habitat homes. Relying solely on volunteers, the local Habitat unit either builds new houses or rehabilitates older ones in the worn neighborhoods of Buffalo and Lackawanna.

The houses -- simple, decent and healthy -- are turned over to new owners with 20- to 30-year mortgages containing no interest and no profit. The new owners, partners, really, make a $300 downpayment and monthly mortgage payments in the $200-to-$300 range for principal, taxes and insurance.

To qualify as an owner, a family must have adequate income to meet the payments and maintain the house. The family must have a decent credit rating, be living in a house not good for them from a financial or health standpoint and be willing to put in at least 500 hours of work in building or rehabilitating its new residence. Habitat folks call it "sweat equity." Some owners join the volunteer corps to work on other houses, but no one is compelled to do so.

In Buffalo, Habitat has no paid staff. It uses 96 percent of its money for building materials. It gets no government help in construction of houses, although the city provides vacant lots for $1 each and might do sidewalks.

Habitat makes a difference where it counts. It brings the rolled-up sleeves of dedicated citizens into neighborhoods others would just as soon forget. It shows the right kind of community spirit, one that leaves no one out.

Habitat cannot cure all of this or any other city's ills. What single effort can? But by mobilizing willing, caring volunteers to accomplish a beneficial act, it writes a prescription for better health in lots of urban neighborhoods.