Politics & Government

New idea arrives on blight removal

Run-down, abandoned houses hurt everyone around them. They drag down the surrounding neighborhood, become a nexus for crime, and lower area property values and tax revenue. But a new partnership could turn the battle against blight into a win-win effort.

Early this year, First Baptist Church of Christ, Centenary United Methodist Church and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, all in Macon, were working on “social entrepreneurship” ideas, including ways to find work for the otherwise unemployable, said Dan Riley, chairman of the First Baptist missions committee.

The group discussed “some kind of recycling,” for which labor would be the only real cost, he said. Riley suggested tearing down houses, to allow reuse of the material. Through an online search, he found that idea had already taken hold in other places.

But the churches needed a partner that could legally employ their homeless clients, and provide insurance, said Riley, who is a Macon Area Habitat for Humanity board member and a volunteer for 27 years. He suggested the idea to Habitat’s board.

“They said ‘great,’ ’’ Riley said.

Now Macon-Bibb County commissioners are considering a resolution to pay Habitat for Humanity $9,000 to demolish one house, which the city will have already taken through the necessary legal process and tested for asbestos and other hazards. The resolution cleared the city-county commission’s Economic & Community Development Committee Aug. 26, and likely will be up for a final vote Tuesday.

The average cost for the government to tear down an abandoned house is between $12,000 and $15,000, including legal costs, asbestos abatement, demolition and removal, Economic & Community Development Director Wanzina Jackson said.

Riley said the Rev. Tim Bagwell, pastor at Centenary, asked Mayor Robert Reichert about paying to have a house dismantled rather than just crushed and thrown in the landfill. Macon-Bibb County sets aside about $250,000 per year to tear down abandoned buildings.

Reichert, using numbers provided by Jackson, said there are about 4,000 abandoned structures in Macon-Bibb County, though at any given time only a few hundred have been legally condemned.

Mayor Robert Reichert committed to tearing down 100 houses each year, a goal reached only twice in five years. But even if that’s achieved consistently, it won’t make much of a dent in the problem, especially because some properties are still being abandoned, Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore said. The government is hoping other organizations will pitch in as partners, as Habitat for Humanity has done in one target neighborhood, he said.

“What you’ve got in Lynmore Estates is almost a model for what we’d like other areas to do,” Floore said.

If Habitat now starts tearing down houses in addition to building new ones, the government can put more of its own effort into other areas of revitalization, he said.

Habitat for Humanity already helped tear down two houses in Lynmore Estates in February, according to the agency’s website, but the group didn’t use workers provided by the churches.

The churches were looking at ways to help the homeless beyond immediate physical needs, helping them to become more self-sufficient, said Harold Tessendorf, Macon Area Habitat for Humanity executive director. Habitat, with its experience in construction, was a natural partner.

Habitat branches in other cities are doing similar things, he said.

The $9,000 allocation would pay for some tools, but also will pay for a stipend to the trainees, Tessendorf said. The target house has yet to be selected, but there are several being considered, he said.

A team of four people, including a supervisor, probably will work on the house, Tessendorf said. They’re aiming to get a house down to its foundation in three weeks; after that a contractor would take up the concrete footing, and the vacant lot would be seeded with grass, he said.

Even if the program grows and succeeds, it’s not a “silver bullet” for blight but can be one more tool in dealing with the problem, Tessendorf said.

The training and experience could help the workers get construction jobs, Tessendorf said.

People in Centenary’s transitional housing will be the first offered training in house demolition, Riley said. He’s not sure how many houses they might eventually do at once. The first house project will test how long each job will take.

“With the number of houses that the city has that need to be torn down, there’s no reason why there couldn’t be a good number of crews on any given day working,” Riley said.

It may take longer to tear down a house by hand than to knock it down with heavy equipment, but the result will be better, he said.

There is less material that would go to the city landfill, instead becoming available for other people’s projects at the Habitat ReStore. The sale of that material would benefit Habitat. And the unemployed homeless would get paychecks and job skills.

“There’s so many good things that can come out of it,” Riley said.