Rescuing Vacant Homes, Revitalizing Communities
Text and photos by RICHARD CRUME
What can be done with the tens of thousands of vacant, abandoned and foreclosed houses found in virtually every community across America? Builders of Hope is turning these houses into energy-efficient, affordable homes for the growing number of working poor and middle-class Americans who are living paycheck to paycheck. According to Founder and CEO Nancy Welsh:
We have a greater number of houses sitting vacant than we have had in decades, and at the same time, more families are in need of decent, reasonably priced housing than ever before. My goal is to transform these vacant houses into affordable and comfortable green homes in safe communities while creating jobs for local builders and the construction industry.
Americans demolish about a quarter of a million houses every year, often making room for new housing subdivisions, commercial developments or roadway construction. On average, each demolition results in about 35,000 pounds of debris, representing up to 30 percent of landfill content in many communities. The United States is also experiencing an epidemic of foreclosures (more than 800,000 in 2011), and many of these homes sit vacant for months.
By rehabilitating old, vacant houses, typically built between 1930 and 1960, and selling or renting them at affordable prices, Builders of Hope is helping to revitalize neighborhoods and prevent the destruction of perfectly good structures. On average, about 65 percent of most structures can be reused or salvaged, including valuable features such as hardwood floors and crown molding.
Retrofitting Green and Energy Lean
Under its Extreme Green Remodeling program, Builders of Hope obtains vacant houses and relocates them to new, clustered communities, where the homes are completely refurbished using the latest green materials and practices:
- Ceiling fans and exterior ventilation
- Spray foam insulation
- Fluorescent lighting
- Low-e windows
- Sealed crawl spaces
- Low-flow plumbing fixtures
- Energy Star appliances and water heaters
- Energy-efficient heating and cooling systems
- Low volatile organic building materials and sealants
- Rain barrels and drought-tolerant landscaping
- Non-toxic tile and wood flooring, glues and paint
Other improvements typically include replacing the wiring, plumbing, siding and roofing. An educational program helps new occupants understand how good habits, like cutting back the heating or air conditioning when away from home, can help reduce energy costs.
Each rehabilitated home is obtained at low or no cost from a bank, city redevelopment program, highway construction site or individual property owner, and Builders of Hope picks up the cost of moving the house to its new location.
Once rehabilitated, the houses are sold at cost to families earning less than 80 percent of the average median income.
Through its Upcycle program, Builders of Hope partners with banks, lenders and local governments to acquire and rehabilitate foreclosed and vacant rental properties, which are then made available to working-class Americans at affordable rents.
By creating stable, long-term rentals for low- and middle-income residents, the program helps communities repopulate neighborhoods, improve safety, stabilize home prices and attract new investors. Although introduced in 2012, Upcycle has already secured nearly $100 million for property acquisition and rehabilitation.
Generating Jobs in the Community
An important feature of the Extreme Green Remodeling and Upcycle programs is job creation in the local community. As these programs expand nationally, they are creating many opportunities for licensed building construction professionals. They have an immediate need for builders experienced with rehabilitating structures, a job that presents some challenges not found in new construction. In particular, complying with modern building codes and energy- efficiency standards while preserving the original structure can be perplexing at times, and not every builder has the know-how to succeed.
To increase the supply of rehabilitation workers and craftsmen, Welsh created Hope Works, a six-month work-mentoring program for the chronically unemployed, in collaboration with a local rescue mission and nearby workforce development office. This program provides ex-offenders, homeless individuals and at-risk youth the opportunity to learn a new trade while re- establishing themselves in the community. So far, Hope Works has hired and mentored 70 construction crew members.
Jobs in construction are also being created by Welsh’s Heroes Village program, which rehabilitates blighted or foreclosed multifamily buildings near Veteran Administration hospitals and medical facilities. The buildings are then leased to veterans undergoing treatment and their families.
Building Community on State Street
One of Builders of Hope’s newest projects is State Street Village, a community of 25 rehabilitated homes located just south of downtown Raleigh, N.C. Each State Street Village home was rebuilt to high energy-efficiency standards, and many have south-facing windows for passive solar heating. Most of the homes are on a cul de sac, which helps build a sense of community and provides a safe environment for children. A city bus stop, greenway and public school are located nearby.
As with new construction, energy improvements to rehabbed structures require a balance between efficiency, ease of installation and cost. For the State Street Village property, the builders elected to insulate with spray polyurethane foam (Bayer Bayseal open cell polyurethane), which applies easily, allows little air infiltration and is excellent in sealing holes and cracks in old structures. Crawl spaces were sealed and air- conditioned (10-20 mil poly vapor barrier liners and spray foam or foam boards on the walls), and homes were equipped with high-efficiency heat pumps (Goodman SSZ14, 1.5 ton, 15 SEER) and Honeywell programmable thermostats. Each home has an Energy Star refrigerator, dishwasher, water heater and bath fan.
Green Lifestyle Included
When purchasing a home through builders of hope, the buyer gets more than just an affordable place to live. In addition to energy-efficient windows, insulation and appliances, these homes feature low volatile organic paints and adhesives, rain barrels and drought-tolerant landscaping. Large front porches and hardwood floors add to the quality and comfort of these once-neglected houses.the home sites are typically clustered in urban neighborhoods, where residents can get to know each other in a safe environment for kids. to help low- and middle-income residents bridge the digital divide, homes for sale come with a free computer and low-cost or free internet service.
“Extreme Green Rehabilitation”
That is what builders of hope calls its patent-pending program that guides the rehabilitation process through various stages, including:
- Initial house assessment
- Site selection
- Construction debris management
- Reconstruction using green practices and materials and
The result is an attractive city home that is green, comfortable and affordable.
Why Donate Property?
Rather than paying to demolish and haul away an old house, developers and other property owners have discovered that by donating a house the builders of hope, they can save up to $25,000 in tear-down and disposal costs. Donors may also qualify for tax deductions, they get their lots cleared free of charge, and they avoid criticism from preservation groups about wrecking old, historic structures. the national trust for historic Preservation (preservationnation.org) has documented more than 500 historic neighborhoods in 40 states that are experiencing a significant number of teardowns.
A life-cycle assessment performed by researchers at nearby North Carolina State University found that Builders of Hope’s green remodeling formula applied to an existing home reduces greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 19 tons compared with a typical stick-built new home. The remodeled home is nearly twice as energy efficient.
Builders of Hope’s homes in the State Street Village community come with an energy guarantee. Advanced Energy (advancedenergy.org), an independent nonprofit corporation established by the North Carolina Utilities Commission to work with member utilities on energy-efficiency and conservation projects, serves as a third-party certifier for Builders of Hope homes. In the event that a utility bill exceeds the maximum monthly utility bill guarantee (often around $40), the certifier covers the amount of the bill above the guarantee while identifying and repairing any problems that caused the higher-than-expected bill.
Asked why a former advertising executive would devote her life to nonprofit projects like State Street Village, Welsh explained, “I could not bear to see the disconnect between so many vacant homes and so many Americans in need of housing, and I just had to do something. It has a lot to do with my faith.”
Builders of Hope is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization based in Raleigh, N.C., with affiliate offices in New Orleans and Dallas. To date, the organization has rescued 143 vacant homes and 157 abandoned rental units, and its State Street Village is the first fully rehabilitated housing community to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold certification criteria for community development. Major development projects are underway in 10 communities and six cities. You can learn more at buildersofhope.org.
Richard Crume (email@example.com), an environmental engineer by training, has worked for both corporate and governmental organizations in the energy and environmental fields for more 30 years. He is an adjunct associate professor at North Carolina A&T State University, where he teaches a graduate-level course covering air pollution and climate change. A frequent contributor to SOLAR TODAY, Crume has written on topics related to green buildings, sustainable energy and waste management, and he is a member of the board of trustees for the Institute of Professional Environmental Practice. Crume lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.