Saginaw Habitat Adds Demolition to Its Mission
SAGINAW, Mich., March 19, 2009, The New York Times — The ordinary scenes of Habitat for Humanity — volunteers with saws and hammers creating homes from scratch on empty dirt — are being upended here.
Volunteers are learning to rip down plaster, pull apart walls and tear off roofs. To the nonprofit group’s long-held aim of constructing houses for those in need, Saginaw’s affiliate has lately added to its mission by doing the opposite.
As part of an agreement with the city, and with at least $500,000 from the state and federal governments, the Habitat for Humanity volunteers and paid workers plan to demolish two vacant, dilapidated houses here a week, every week, over the next two years. As for creating homes, they will build or refurbish eight houses this year.
The shift in the organization’s focus is a sign of the times in Saginaw, a shrinking city northwest of Detroit where at least 800 houses sit empty and doomed, and offers a glimpse of what increasingly empty neighborhoods in many cities may soon face as foreclosures continue.
International leaders of Habitat for Humanity, an organization more than three decades old, say their focus is changing to meet the demands of a changing economy. In cities where so many homes sit empty, the group is leaning away from building new houses and instead fixing up old ones, said Ken Klein, the vice chairman of the group’s board.
In recent years, about 100 of the organization’s affiliates around the country have done the same, removing recyclable items, like cabinets, floorboards, plaster and light fixtures, from condemned houses and, in a few cities, even razing some structures.
In Saginaw, city leaders acknowledge that some people have been skeptical, or at least puzzled, by the notion that Habitat for Humanity would tear down houses. But these leaders contend that the move makes sense: workers will remove (and resell) reusable housing material rather than send it to landfills, some homeless or unemployed people will be paid to work on the program, and money earned through the demolitions will go toward the organization’s longtime goal of getting poor families into new or rehabbed homes.