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L.A. has the dubious distinction of being the country's least affordable place to buy a home. An average house with no frills typically costs more than half a million dollars. And that is why former President Jimmy Carter and hundreds of volunteers have spent this week in L.A. building 30 new affordable homes and shining a light on the city's housing crisis.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: You don't have to tell Celeste Flores(ph) that living in L.A. is expensive. For the past 18 years, the preschool teacher has been renting a tiny apartment in South Los Angeles for herself and her four children.

Ms. CELESTE FLORES (Preschool Teacher): It's been hard for me.

KAHN: She hoped that after finishing night school she might be able to afford a larger apartment. She never dreamed of buying a home.

Ms. FLORES: I've seen other people paying their bills for their house and having headaches. And I'm like, oh, I don't want to (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of construction)

KAHN: But then Habitat for Humanity came to South Los Angeles to build 14 affordable homes. Hammering the nails and putting up siding with floors and hundreds of volunteers are former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. They've been working here and in another L.A. neighborhood all week.

President JIMMY CARTER: Los Angeles has more fatherless families than any other city in America, and they have more homeless people than any city in America. That's why we came to Los Angeles, because the need is so great here.

KAHN: That need has only gotten worse since the last time Carter and his wife came to L.A. to build houses 12 years ago. One of those homes belonged to Toni Neddles(ph), who was thrilled this week when the former president came back to see her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TONI NEDDLES: How have you been? You look the same.

President CARTER: You're kidding. Come on. I've been telling folks that the house looks better now than it was 12 years ago, and you're right.

Ms. NEDDLES: Oh, thank you.

President CARTER: It looks beautiful.

Ms. NEDDLES: Bless you.

KAHN: Neddles lives in L.A.'s Watts neighborhood. In 1995 the Carters helped her built her three-bedroom, one-bath home.

President CARTER: Have you had any trouble with the house falling down or...

Ms. NEDDLES: Not at all. Not at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President CARTER: Well, that's wonderful.

Ms. NEDDLES: I just lived in it the whole time. The whole time, 12 years.

President CARTER: And making your payments on time?

Ms. NEDDLES: Yes.

President CARTER: All right.

Ms. NEDDLES: Yes, sir.

KAHN: Neddles has already paid more than half of the original $65,000 mortgage. She says there's no way she could have bought her at the going rate in this neighborhood as a single mother with three kids. Twelve years later, homes are even more out of reach for her neighbors.

Ms. SHAMIKA MILLER(ph): I mean, people can't afford - barely can afford the rent these days. I mean 400,000 is a lot for this neighborhood.

KAHN: Shamika Miller walks her son home from school every day past new three and four-bedroom homes under construction. Even here in Watts, they're approaching half a million dollars.

Neighbor Sylvia Hernandez(ph) just shakes her head at that price.

Ms. SYLVIA HERNANDEZ: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: It's too expensive, she says. That's why she and her husband and two kids live with her in-laws.

City council president Eric Garcetti says unfortunately overcrowding and high rents are the reality of life for most in L.A.

Mr. ERIC GARCETTI (L.A. City Council President): Los Angeles has been very good at saying not in my backyard, no more housing, and they thought people wouldn't come or wouldn't have kids.

KAHN: But he says in the past decade, the city has grown by a million people while federal housing assistance has been dramatically cut.

Mr. GARCETTI: So for the children that are growing up in our schools right now, to be able to stay in Los Angeles, live in their neighborhoods, and not increasingly cram into an aged infrastructure, we need to build housing - everywhere.

(Soundbite of construction)

KAHN: In South Los Angeles, Habitat for Humanity's efforts to build low-income housing may be small, but they mean a lot to Celeste Flores. Standing in her soon-to-be complete living room, Flores takes a moment to decide where to hang her new family portrait.

Ms. FLORES: Maybe I'll put it right there.

KAHN: Front and center?

Ms. FLORES: Yeah.

KAHN: Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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