A Thriving Habitat : Housing: Tijuana neighborhood built by volunteers and the poor a year ago, is now known simply as Jimmy Carter.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the Division del Norte elementary school here, the just-completed academic year ushered in the arrival of a new group of students-- Los Jimis, as they're known.

A bus route was also born, painted signs on windshields proclaiming the destination--the neighborhood known simply as "Jimmy Carter."

The year also saw the fulfillment of Mercedes Gomez Arcadia's lifelong ambition--a home for herself, her husband and three children.

"I always hoped that I'd have such a place," Gomez commented as she busily prepared an afternoon meal in her kitchen, shortly before heading off for her afternoon shift in a U.S.-owned medical equipment assembly factory.

Her family is among 100 now residing in the community founded a year ago by Habitat for Humanity, the Georgia-based self-help housing group closely identified with ex-U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

The former chief executive and his wife, Rosalynn, were among more than 1,000 volunteers who toiled for five days at the work site, situated on a flat patch of bald earth amid a vast, mostly ramshackle settlement 10 miles southeast of downtown.

The district, known as El Florido, (ironically, in this arid expanse, after the Spanish word for flowers), is otherwise a prototypical Third World urban settlement of makeshift residences and limited services, home for tens of thousands of working poor migrants from the Mexican interior.

Habitat volunteers also constructed seven homes in San Diego's Encanto neighborhood as part of a binational Habitat project that officially ended June 22, 1990.

Despite many delays and barriers--organizers now concede that their goal of constructing 100 homes in five days was impossibly ambitious--Habitat's Tijuana community seems to be thriving, an integral, if decidedly upscale, addition to the ever-expanding environs of El Florido.

While somewhat institutional and primitive from a U.S. standpoint, the rows of pitched-roof homes along the unpaved streets here represent something just short of luxury for the working families now in residence.

"I think it's turned out real well," said David Snell, executive director for Habitat's Tijuana-San Diego project, speaking as he took a break in a trailer at the project's continuing Tijuana work site. (About 100 volunteers are now undertaking a more modest goal: Constructing 15 homes in 15 weeks in the El Florido area, one of a number of projects throughout North America commemorating the organization's 15th anniversary.)

"Last year was a once-in-a lifetime experience," said Snell, a veteran Habitat organizer, who donned a pink cap commemorating the project. "It was intense, but I don't regret anything. . . . We called it Milagro en la Frontera (Miracle on the Border), and it was just that, un milagro, a miracle. I'm not sure we could have done it this year."

There were many skeptics, including some long-established area residents who viewed the Habitat project warily, fearing the creation of an elite enclave.

Such suspicion seems to have abated, particularly after Habitat workers became involved in several broader community self-help projects, among them the weather-proofing of homes during a winter cold snap that left more than a dozen Tijuana children dead from severe colds, pneumonia and other related ailments.

In El Florido, the abrupt arrival of so many new children at first overwhelmed the capacity of the area elementary school. But Habitat officials worked to provide additional desks to accommodate Los Jimis, as the new enrollees were known.

Doubts also surrounded Habitat's singular construction methods: Walls were made of 2-inch-thick slabs of plastic foam, encased in wire mesh and concrete. (The two-bedroom dwellings average about 34 feet by 20 1/2 feet.)

But residents say the abodes survived the year well, despite record rains in March. "No water came inside," said Adan Huesca, a construction worker and father of seven from Mexico's Puebla state whose home was the work site of the former first couple.

"This is the wall that Senor Jimmy Carter and his wife worked on," said Huesca's wife, Margarita Aguilar, as she points respectfully to the plain white structure. "We're very grateful to them."

Nonetheless, last year's much-touted five-day deadline proved unrealistic. Many Tijuana homes received electrical hookups only within the past two months. Septic tanks for most dwellings were not completed until last fall; for months, many residents used portable toilets situated near the Habitat trailer.

However, the bulk of the construction work was completed during those five days last June. And the telescoped experience proved seminal for many volunteers and the new homeowners, all of whom contributed at least 500 hours of construction time as part of their pact with Habitat.

"The best thing was that you never felt that you were giving a handout," said Giff Asimos, a 29-year-old teacher from Ramona High School, who is back this year as a volunteer, having already visited the family whose new home he helped construct.

"They had me over for dinner," Asimos explained just before a communal outdoor meal with fellow volunteers. "I don't speak much Spanish, and they don't speak much English, but we sat there for a few hours and had a nice time. I felt honored."

New homeowners express similar emotions.

"It was something very beautiful," recalled Hector Manuel Aguilar Gonzalez, one of the residents, who speaks of the time with great affection.

"I'm not sure I'll ever experience anything like that again," said Aguilar, a waiter in a downtown Tijuana night club, recalling a candlelight procession on the final evening, when new residents and volunteers residing in an improvised tent city joined in celebrating their collaboration.

A father of three from the northern state of Sinaloa, Aguilar, like other new homeowners, still seems flabbergasted by his luck in having having benefited from the Habitat initiative. He previously rented a home near downtown, and, afterwards, lived in a squatter's dwelling in El Florido, a residential history shared by many. He acknowledges being skeptical at first of Habitat's plans, as were many in the neighborhood.

"I remember at first there was a little truck parked here, with a sign announcing that Jimmy Carter and someone from the north was going to build homes here," Aguilar recalls disbelievingly as he stands amid wood posts inside a still-incomplete third bedroom that he is adding to his Habitat dwelling.

"I never thought it would come to anything," he adds, expressing a skepticism that is common among people here who seldom experience unexpected good fortune.

Habitat officials, by contrast, tend to be grandiose in their U.S.-style optimism. "Our goal is to eliminate poverty housing in Tijuana," declares Joe Dumbauld, construction coordinator for the organization's ongoing efforts here.

Prodded by his wife, Aguilar entered his name for one of the 100 slots, becoming one of about 300 home-seekers, a low number that project coordinators say reflects residents' initial doubts.

Habitat staffers, working with community representatives, approved applicants based on criteria such as financial need, ability to meet minimal payments (about $60 a month for 10 years), and a desire to contribute "sweat equity" to the home-building.

When his family's name appeared on the final list of those accepted, Aguilar said, he was dumbfounded. "I was so happy that I slapped myself," he said.

Now, he proudly shows a visitor a glossy photo album, sent by a Canadian economics professor who was among the volunteers working on his home. Color snapshots show Aguilar, his wife and three children as they work alongside the volunteer construction crew.

Outside, in the harsh glare of the afternoon sun, Aguilar's wife, Hortensia Gerardo, tends to a front-yard garden, delineated by an arched brick fence, and featuring corn stalks, a tiny peach tree and a chili-pepper bush bursting into life from the parched soil, now dutifully watered. Many residents have added attractive front yards and other amenities, providing a colorful antidote to the uniform construction style.

"My wife's dream was always to have a nice fence out front with little arches," Aguilar says, rattling off plans to build an upstairs bedroom and add other additions. "Now, at least, we have our base. We have aspirations. We want a better life for our children. One has to take advantage of opportunities, to always go forward in this life."

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