An experiment in deconstructing blight, in job creation and in going easy on the landfill is in its second phase in Macon-Bibb County. But as County Commission members debate the best ways to spend the first $10 million in blight bond funds, there is a danger that the experiment won’t be completed.
This year, Macon Area Habitat for Humanity, a coalition of local churches and Macon-Bibb came together to kick off the deconstruction pilot project in the Lynmore Estates neighborhood. Four months later, the project has dismantled a second home.
The first house was taken apart stick by stick by a crew of men the churches interviewed and hired because they had the right mix of skill and obstacles to traditional employment. They were ready to work but needed a break. Much of the wood they removed was sold in the Habitat ReStore to be used in new construction and was, by extension, kept out of the landfill.
By the numbers, about 17 tons of concrete was kept out of the landfill through recycling. That was about a third of the total waste generated by the home. Close to 5,000 board feet of wood was recycled and resold to the tune of $2,000. One of the crew members went on to a full-time job at the ReStore, too.
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That’s at least a piece of success in every measure of the project. But Wanzina Jackson, head of the Macon-Bibb County Office of Economic and Community Development, which worked directly with the project, said that first house is only one data point. It’s not enough to take to the County Commission as an alternative to out-and-out demolition.
“And we kind of felt that we needed to do two or three more projects, really, to get somewhat of a synopsis as to how viable it was going to be,” Jackson said.
Despite being excited about the getting the effort off of the ground, Harold Tessendorf, executive director of Macon-Area Habitat For Humanity, agrees.
“I think, first of all, the perspective from our organization is that we still don’t have enough data yet to really know that we can rule this out as a viable tool to address blight in our community,” he said.
But there was a hiccup when it came to moving on to the second iteration of the project.
The $9,000 the county kicked in on the first house was money from the previous fiscal year. Now that commission members are still debating how to spend $10 million in blight funds, there is no more public money for the deconstruction experiment.
Tessendorf and Habitat got a second house in the deconstruction pipeline on their own. This was another house in Lynmore Estates, but this time it was not one from the county’s condemnation list.
“This was a property that was donated to us,” Tessendorf said. “And through some other in-kind donations, ... we were able to get it tested and abated for the hazards.”
Sourcing the house and abating environmental hazards are actions the county provided in the first pilot. Habitat isn’t getting much county help this time.
“What we’ve asked the county to do on this house is essentially ... if they would put a dumpster out there for the concrete that comes out,” Tessendorf said.
That all added up to a four-month lag time before the second swing at deconstruction.
What that meant for the work crew was evident on the second work site.
On the second day of the four-day job, crew leader Jerry Raffezeder ferried lengths of wood from the front of the then-skeletal house to the de-nailing station in the back. The crew was down to the house framing.
But besides Raffezeder, not a single member of the original crew was left. These were all workers Raffezeder brought over from his regular construction work.
That’s not all bad as, again, one member of the crew went on to a full-time job. But Raffezeder said the time without work and pay wasn’t so great for another crew member.
“Sand Man was making great strides, and there’s a place still here for him -- when we can find him,” Raffezeder said.
Sand Man is the nickname Rahjon Sandifer earned working on the first house. When he was hired, it was the first time he’d ever landed a 9-to-5 job. By Raffezeder’s account, Sandifer was thriving, but four months is a long time to go without work, especially if you’d never really had it before to begin with.
“See, guys have got to work each and every day,” Raffezeder said. “I mean they have to eat every day.”
Raffezeder guesses that eventually Sandifer ran out of money to keep his pre-paid phone cards topped up. Raffezeder knows Sandman is somewhere in Macon, but that’s all he knows. Still, if Sand Man walked up, Raffezeder said he’d put him right back to work.
Even with those problems, Habitat will have a second stack of data for Jackson and the Office of Economic and Community Development. As far as she is concerned, though, one completed project with the promise of data soon to be compiled on a second is not enough to take to the county administration. Jackson says it’s hard to know what they are looking at.
“Yes, we want to provide opportunities as far as skilled labor, trying to help people as far as skills are concerned, but should this be a job program or should this be a salvageable type program?” she asked.
There is another donated house in the wings, again in Lynmore Estates. Jackson said for the time being, there will be no county money for that crucial next experiment. And there may be another month of down time before that house gets moving. Everyone involved agrees that for the project to work, homes will have to be lined up one after the other with little slack in the supply chain.
Bibb County has a list of houses ready to be taken down that could be part of that chain, but Jackson is quick to say that nothing is happening without the County Commission taking out its wallet.
“Unfortunately, we are just at a standstill because demolition is tied to the blight funds,” she said.
Without the infusion of Macon-Bibb cash, this third house will require more private funds.
Habitat knows the wood sourcing was probably more successful this second time out, and there was the bonus of recyclable metal, too. Other things the group wants to try include more volunteer involvement in the process and speeding up the most time-consuming job: removing nails from boards.
“My hope would be that some of this blight funding can indeed be cut loose,” Tessendorf said. “So that we can really say, ‘OK we’ve got a neighborhood, let’s go for it. Let’s see what we can really do here.’”