When the Northridge earthquake shattered 76-year-old John Novak's house in Newhall, his plight attracted a flood of volunteer helpers, from neighbors to schoolchildren, who rebuilt it under the leadership of Habitat for Humanity.
But this dramatic demonstration of old-fashioned goodwill has collapsed in a bitter dispute that exemplifies the cynical mock-proverb: "No good deed goes unpunished."
Novak complains that Habitat's deliberately austere style of reconstruction turned his house into a "monstrosity" that he can't live in and doesn't want. But he's trapped, he says because Habitat entangled him in an agreement requiring him to pay $97,000 for the volunteer work if he sells the house in less than 20 years.
Habitat, the group made famous by former President Jimmy Carter's work as a nail-driving handyman, responds that it did only what it has always been praised for doing. It provided no-frills shelter, with its standard legal protections to prevent recipients from converting its charitable labor into quick cash--an agreement administrators say Novak clearly understood before work began.
"I can't tell you how hurt we are by this," said Helena Delu, Habitat's North Hollywood-based earthquake recovery manager. "We are disappointed and saddened."
"It's got me all mixed up," said Novak in an interview in Pismo Beach, where he has sought refuge with a friend, 170 miles from the house Habitat rebuilt on Newhall Avenue.
Novak bursts into tears when the word "earthquake" is mentioned, reminding him of the quake that left his home of 30 years uninhabitable. But he was filled with hope when Habitat came on the scene, he said. Habitat administrators promised, he said, to replace the home he had lost.
Hundreds of volunteers donated materials and time to do just that. Schoolchildren from Chatsworth helped paint the home. Couples skipped their vacations to work on it. The city of Santa Clarita threw its weight behind the reconstruction campaign.
But the rebuilt home is monastically simple, he complains. Gone are the special gate, the landscaping and other homespun touches that Novak cherished.
"I thought it was going to be a house similar to the one I left," he said, but when work was completed, Novak sadly realized no construction crew could rebuild the home of his memories--the home he shared for years with his wife, Kristina, who died in 1983.
"It's like everything is a fake," he said, adding that he may hire a lawyer to try to break Habitat's legal hold on the house.
It's regrettable that Novak doesn't like the way the house looks, Delu said, but "we do not do custom homes."
"Our goal is to provide simple, decent, affordable housing. That's what we build. We don't build something that has a lot of bells and whistles."
The lien on Novak's house is standard on all Habitat projects, she said, to ensure that the donation of time and materials by volunteers goes into providing the shelter the group advertises as its goal, not profits in a sale. Delu said that stipulation was made clear to Novak before he signed his contract, as were several other Habitat provisions he now says were not adequately explained.
Novak's unhappiness is an unusual experience for the group. No one has rejected a Habitat house in the four years the organization has been operating in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys.
In 1995 alone, the group built 12,000 homes in the United States, not counting rehabilitation projects, and less than 1% of them were rejected by the prospective occupants, Habitat says.
"Habitat represents not only Habitat as an organization, but everyone who swung a hammer on the property," said Vyto Adomaitis, a community development specialist for the city of Santa Clarita, who organized dozens of volunteers to work on Novak's house.
His rejection of their efforts is "a reflection on all the volunteers who put a nail in or swung a paintbrush," Adomaitis said.
Novak says of the volunteers: "I feel sorry because they got had," saying he thinks Habitat exploited them for the publicity benefit to raise funds.
Novak said he can't imagine what the future holds for him now. For the moment, he is living in Pismo Beach with Lorraine Alltounian, daughter of a longtime friend who died a few years ago.
Their friendship has been sucked into the dispute as well. Representatives of Habitat and other groups working on Novak's case have expressed concern over her influence on him. Habitat's Delu said that in telephone conversations, Alltounian did not seem to have Novak's best interests at heart. Alltounian was concerned, Delu said, about money that she said Novak owed her.
During an interview at Alltounian's home in Pismo Beach, she hotly denied that she has anything to gain from Novak and said she had forgiven his debt to her.
"I don't need anything from anybody," she said, adding that people are suspicious of her "because I'm a lot younger" than Novak. She is 45, he is 76.
Alltounian said she has participated in meetings with Novak and Habitat despite the toll it has taken on her own health. Unable to easily walk downstairs in her two-story home, she has put her house on the market as well.
But she insists she won't abandon Novak. For his part, he seems attached to her. She completes his sentences, interjecting to clear up Novak's sometimes confused thoughts and memories.
"If I didn't have my friend here, I don't know what I'd do," Novak said.
Even though he could live in the Newhall house free of mortgage payments, he said he is determined to sell it, even if it means a court battle with Habitat.
"I have all my memories," Novak said. "[Habitat] shouldn't get it for nothing."