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.
“You have to look at the mission; the mission is to make housing more affordable,” said Paul Warriner, the executive director of Saginaw’s Habitat for Humanity affiliate. “And when you think about this, that isn’t too much of a stretch.”
Still, it is an untested realm for volunteers, many of whom have spent years hammering nails and painting boards in new houses, never thinking of trying to take one apart. Last week, a chilly group from Habitat for Humanity, including several people fulfilling community service requirements and one who was staying in a homeless shelter, ripped wallboards and windows from a house as a fire still burned in its fireplace.
“It’s more challenging than building, where you go in linear steps,” said Chuck Aubin, a longtime volunteer who helped lead efforts to demolish a credit union — one of the affiliate’s first tests in taking apart a building here. “With deconstruction, you don’t know what you’re getting into until you tear that panel off the wall.”
Saginaw, with some 56,000 people, was, by some estimates, nearly twice as populous when the automobile business boomed. These days, the biggest employer is the health care industry, city officials said. Saginaw, a 100-mile drive from Detroit, is a city of contrasts: neighborhoods of enormous, well-kept homes (this was, after all, a lumber town before it was a car town) but also blocks of vacant lots and shuttered houses.
“The problem is endemic throughout the Midwestern, older industrial towns,” said Darnell Earley, Saginaw’s city manager. “It’s going to be very difficult to catch up with it.”
On the city’s east side on a recent afternoon, a mail carrier stepped onto the porch of what appeared to be the only occupied house in sight and then drove off, past a whirring bulldozer demolishing the remains of a burned house and past every other house on the block, boarded and abandoned.
There is something jarring at the sight of hundreds of houses sitting empty, while many poor families need a place to live.
“Yeah, we might have enough homes here,” John C. Stemple, the city’s zoning and development coordinator, said, peering around the empty neighborhood. “But they’re not quality choices.”
Many of the houses exceed Habitat for Humanity’s modest size requirements.
“A lot of these are just too big for us to use,” said Mr. Warriner, noting that there was no point in restoring a house that someone then could not afford to maintain or heat. “Some of them are not in real good areas, perhaps. And some of them are just too far gone, too dangerous.”
Inside Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, where the group sells discounted items from demolitions, the floor is lined with sink basins, cabinets, doors, bathtubs, counters and wood. Leaders here hope that the program will ultimately pay for itself, that the profits from selling recycled items will one day cover the cost of taking down homes.
In a nearby office, Cameron Brady, Habitat for Humanity’s development manager, shows a visitor the latest photographs from a project. There are the volunteers, ripping away at walls and pulling down pieces in one of the few buildings they have removed so far. In later scenes, tired workers stand proudly in all that is left, a foundation.