When the Northridge earthquake shattered 76-year-old John Novak's house in Newhall, his plight attracted a flood of volunteer helpers who rebuilt it under the leadership of Habitat for Humanity.
But this demonstration of old-fashioned goodwill has collapsed in a bitter dispute.
Novak complains that Habitat's deliberately austere style of reconstruction turned his house into a "monstrosity." 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 always has 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.
"I can't tell you how hurt we are by this," said Helena Delu, Habitat's North Hollywood-based quake recovery manager.
"It's got me all mixed up," Novak said.
Novak was filled with hope when Habitat came on the scene. Its administrators promised, he said, to replace the dwelling he had lost, but gone are the special gate, the landscaping and other cherished touches.
"I thought it was going to be a house similar to the one I left," he said, but when work was completed, Novak realized that the construction crew had not rebuilt the home he had shared with his late wife, Kristina.
"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.