On a recent morning, three men cleared piles of debris from around a vacant home in the Lynmore Estates neighborhood of south Macon.
Golden light cut across exposed wood as they pulled siding and insulation out of the weeds. This was the first step in removing the house from the street.
With a call from their foreman, they stopped their work and came around to the front of the house.
About a dozen people gathered there in front of a pecan tree. After a few words, Eric Mayle of Centenary Church began a blessing.
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He hadn’t come to pray for demolition.
“Dear friends, we are gathered here today to pray for and to bless the deconstruction of this house, hopefully the first of many in this neighborhood,” Mayle said. “Today we bless destruction because we know it is only out of this destruction that creation can occur.”
Macon-Bibb County government, Macon Area Habitat for Humanity and a handful of local churches all hope that deconstruction -- piece-by-piece dismantling of the house to save pieces of it -- won’t just fight blight but will also create work for people who need it.
It took a while to get here, explained Harold Tessendorf, executive director of the Habitat for Humanity program.
“Since 2005, our affiliate has been focused on the revitalization of the Lynmore Estates neighborhood of south Macon,” he said. “And that has given us a first-hand insight into the nature of the blight problem.”
Lynmore Estates is a working-class neighborhood bordered by an industrial area, a swamp, railroad tracks and a four-lane highway. Since 2005, Macon Habitat has been renovating the neighborhood from the inside out by steadily building new, affordable homes. Along the way Tessendorf says they’ve had to deal with dilapidated homes, too. In 2014 the agency tackled four blighted structures in the neighborhood.
“Three of them we were actually able to save and do a gut rehabilitation on those units rather than straight out demolish them,” Tessendorf said.
By gut rehabilitation, he meant making the home livable again. The vast majority of the blighted structures in Lynmore Estates are, as Tessendorf said, “functionally obsolete.” Gut rehabilitation isn’t an option.
For Habitat to reach its ultimate goal in the neighborhood, those homes need to go. But go where? Just because a home is no longer standing doesn’t mean the stuff it was built from just disappears.
“When we started to do the gut rehab on the houses, we began to say, “Heck, there’s a lot of stuff in these houses that could be redirected and reused,” Tessendorf said. “How do we go about doing it?”
SAVE THE BONES
Rochelle Fisher knows. She is Tessendorf’s counterpart in the Akron Ohio Habitat chapter. Fisher says her chapter seized on the deconstruction idea after being challenged by the Akron mayor to take houses down as well as they put them up. In Akron, Habitat is in the fourth year of the experiment.
“The first year we did four as a pilot. And we actually deconstructed and demolished,” Fisher said, “And the next year we did 25. Same thing -- deconstruction and demolition.”
Akron, like Macon, has an aging housing stock, and population has declined in recent years. The city was also slammed by the 2008 mortgage crisis. The city has hundreds of houses to be taken apart. So just how much of Akron’s blight is Habitat responsible for?
“About a third,” Fisher said. “We have a backlog of about 600 a year. So our contract just renewed to start April 1 (is) for 200 projects.”
Their contract is with the city of Akron, which pays the two-man crew that does the work. In Macon, it will be Bibb County and three local churches -- Centenary Church, First Baptist Church of Christ and St. Paul’s Episcopal -- that will finance the first project.
Fisher and Akron Habitat have found the answer to what to do with the bones of an old house. Just save them. As they pick a house apart, the Akron crew hangs on to bits that can be sold again. Scrap metal is good, but rare old lumber is best. A lot of that ends up in high end furniture. The rest can be sold in the Habitat building supply store, which has become a major source of funding for other projects to the tune of nearly $35,000, Fisher said.
That’s enough for six more Akron area home renovation projects a year. That success has helped grow Fisher’s chapter. She says when she got there nine years ago, she had a $600,000 annual budget. Today the budget is about $3 million.
It didn’t take long for the Macon pilot project to make money. About a week after work began on the Lynmore Estates house, a sizable load of 2-by-6s and other lumber was sold. That was the start of a steady stream of wood landing on the loading dock of the Habitat building supply store.
‘HELPING FOLK IN CRISIS’
Finally, the deconstruction crew is staffed with workers who by many standards would be difficult to employ.
For Macon Habitat and Harold Tessendorf, that’s a crucial part of the project’s mission, though.
“We’re helping folk who are in crisis,” he said.
The idea is to get these jobs, maybe three or four of them, to people just out of prison or with no home, maybe with a history of serious drug problems.
“We’re actually looking at the opposite of what normal employers do,” said Jennifer Brookins of St. Paul’s Episcopal.
In interviews, the tougher the place you came from, the more likely you were to shine.
Brookins talked to Chris Patterson about his work experience. He is an old hand at the construction game. Today, as on every other day, he had a tape measure on his hip.
“You see how old it is. Shew, I’ve had this thing ever since I’ve been in construction,” Patterson said. “I’ve been in construction about 30 something years.”
Outside, Larry Young Jr. wasn’t doing as well. He was late for his interview and turned away, but he didn’t give up.
“I’m walking, I’m homeless. I came to the church,” said Young, who’s a father of four with a fifth on the way. “They told me I was supposed to be here 20 minutes early. But I’m homeless, I don’t have a car.”
He was just out the front door, holding a folder with his resume, background check and other documents, all tied up with a satin ribbon.
He found Mayle, of Centenary Church, inside.
“Can I talk for a second?” Young asked.
“Sir?” Mayle said.
“Can I just speak with you for one second?” Young asked again.
Young ultimately got another chance.
There were 32 people to interview. To make it go smoothly, applicants needed to show up 20 minutes early to fill out paperwork. Patterson arrived at 9 a.m. for an 11:15 interview. Young arrived right before his 11:45 appointment.
“The real tension of this is can you show up on time? Can you do the things that you’re supposed to do to do a job?” Mayle asked. “But then the other side of it too is we want to help you if you can’t.”
Months later, the crew was on the work site. Neither Young nor Patterson made it. Young didn’t get another interview, but crew foreman Jerry Raffezeder wanted Patterson to be his right-hand man. When work began, however, Patterson couldn’t be found.
He wasn’t the only no show, though.
“One called out this morning,” Raffezeder said. “He said that he wasn’t going to be able to work because he was trying to get disability.”
Rahjon Sandifer was there, though, and was itching to get going.
“I’m ready to work, do something,” he said. “Sit around, look too much, just kills my day. It kills it. Just kills it.”
Sandifer’s parole officer referred him to the job. He said his girlfriend and their three children are excited about the prospect.
“They think it’s good. You know, I never really worked before, ever had a steady job and anything like that,” he said. “This will be my first initial job since I been out.”
Rahjon and the crew will start taking the house apart from the roof and work their way down. A second house is being prepped for them in the meantime.
The hope is that by the time they are ready for a third house, the crew will have its work dialed in.