(Photo: Nicole Disser)

(Photo: Nicole Disser)

The world’s most powerful peanut farmer and everyone’s — well, okay, this reporter’s — favorite ex-Prez made an appearance in the East Village today. Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn held a press conference this afternoon to look back at their 30 years of community service for Habitat Humanity. Awkward looking Secret Service agents milled about in the middle of East 6th Street while press, local residents, and habitat volunteers gathered across the street from Mascot Flats, the first Carter Work Project site.

Back in 1984 Habitat for Humanity’s work began on what President Carter called “a horrible mess” of a six-story building on East 6th Street between Avenues C and D. He described an old tenement building in ruins: on the top floor “you could look up and see the sky,” Carter said. The apartments were filled with “garbage up to your knees.”

Rosalynn Carter described her initial doubts about being able to adequately contribute to the daunting project. “I told Jimmy I was not going to do any hammering,” she laughed. But by the very first day she was helping with demolition.

The building was such a disaster at the outset that it took two years to finish renovations. But by the project’s completion 19 families had moved in, and 12 of those same families still call Mascot Flats home today.

One of the original homeowners, Don Kao, also spoke at the press conference. “This building is incredibly important,” he said, clearly moved. He spoke of raising his daughter at his Habitat home and providing shelter throughout the years to kids in need and other people down on their luck. When Kao fell sick with AIDS, it was a neighbor at Mascot that helped him up the three flights of stairs. Kao says the house “allowed me to take care of myself, and take care of my health needs.”

This being New York City, the conversation quickly turned to the topic of gentrification. Carter said that residents of the habitat home paid $30,000 back in 1984 for their apartments — a very reasonable price for a home in the East Village even 30 years ago. However, the former President was quick to point out that Habitat for Humanity doesn’t just give handouts to people. “We don’t give away anything,” he explained. “People aren’t taking charity. They’re participating in building the foundation for their future.”

Carter acknowledged that renovating homes as a part of the Habitat for Humanity project can lead to gentrification. Kao also spoke to the upscaling of the neighborhood: “prices have sky-rocketed in buildings around us.” But Carter saw gentrification as a positive effect of renovations. “It makes the whole neighborhood want to emulate the Habitat project,” he said.

The Carter Work Project has gone on to build and repair homes all over the United States and has expanded its efforts to 14 different countries. President Carter spoke of the biggest project that took place in the Philippines, where 293 homes were built in just five days. “But the most memorable is the one across the street,” he said.

This year the project plans to coordinate more than 1,000 volunteers to help rebuild and repair homes damaged by last year’s Hurricane Sandy on Staten Island.