Energizing Local Economies Through Creative De-Construction
by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.
There is a way to use charity to both create jobs and improve the community.
I love the title of the effort - "Creative De-Construction".
In many older neighborhoods, there are one or more houses or business that are abandoned or damaged and become the kinds of places parents tell their kids to stay out of. Sometimes the buildings attract critters like skunks, occasionally of the human variety. Neighbors begin to petition for the building to be torn down or fixed up. Often the building owner does not have the money to do either, so the problem sits, and grows worse...broken windows lead to water damage and mold, pipes freeze and leak, drywall is ruined. All in all, a mess.
Still, the building contains items of value - solid oak flooring, or kitchen cabinets, stair railing worn smooth by generations of little bottoms defying their parents by sneaking a slide down. Others might contain usable toilets, sinks, generous sized tubs with fancy legs, light fixtures, maybe air conditioning units or even the boards or iron beams that make the frame of the building. Or they may have marble fireplaces or fancy mantles, or reusable exterior bricks.
Often the city or county goes through the expensive legal process of condemning the property, seizing title, and then billing the taxpayer to knock it down and haul it to the landfill. A painful process for everyone which can create a new pauper - the old building owner. A step backward from an economic development standpoint.
A better route is use of Creative De-Construction. The local government works with the owner, and makes arrangements with an organization (the Creative De-Constructors) to have them come and tear down the building. The owner then donates the salvageable materials to the charity and gets a tax deduction.
The Institute for Local Self Reliance, a treasure of a national organization that educates communities on successful models of local economic development, began working in the area of Creative DeConstruction 14 years ago. With the help of the Institute, several hundred communities have now started their own programs. These programs have been so successful that HUD now encourages the technique in government funded neighborhood redevelopment and will fund help fund start ups of new companies in this arena.
The hundreds of groups that operate these programs confidentially state some rather surprising facts. First, the building owner often saves money, rather than spending it to bulldoze the property. They get to keep their land. Second, in Portland, Oregon, the ReBuilding Center has learned that De-Constructing a building created six to eight jobs compared to standard demolition. Third, students who volunteer to help learn a great deal about the building trades to the benefit of everyone. Fourth, the availability of recycled building materials often help other low income families realize their home improvement dreams.
In some cases, for-profit companies do the actual Creative De-Construction (not bulldozing), but partner in advance with charities who accept the re-usable salvaged materials for resale. This allows the charity to maintain its focus on its store without having to manage a construction company. A good example of this is The ReUse People, a franchise system which has a location in Durham, North Carolina. They partner up with not-for-profits while keeping a clear eye on their own bottom line.
Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte’s ReStore operation has a program where the owner of recyclable kitchen cabinets can get a free professional opinion as to the merits and tax implications of having the cabinets carefully removed and donated for resale. Proceeds are recycled to help build more Habitat homes.
The North East Community Action Corporation of St. Louis, Missouri has a nice De-Construction manual describing detailed, experienced based comparisons of the cost and benefits to the landlord of the De-Construct model.
In spite of this magnificent track record, in many parts of the country the old ways still prevail. The Institute For Local Self Reliance estimates that only one out of 250 abandon homes are deconstructed - the rest are simply bulldozed at great expense. A waste of waste.
Much of our nation, particularly the older communities, are suffering both a loss of jobs and hope. We can fix this by imitating successful efforts of both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. Sometimes it is not just physical property that gets recycled and restored. With leadership, we can recycle lives.