Rahjon Sandifer on the first morning of work on the deconstruction pilot project. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

Can Blight Be Deconstructed?

Taking down houses and creating jobs.

by Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

On a recent morning, three men cleared piles of debris from around a vacant home in the Lynmore Estates neighborhood of Macon, Ga.

Golden light cut across exposed wood as they pulled siding and insulation out of the weeds. This was the first step in totally 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, right in front of the pecan tree jutting out of the concrete path to the front of the house. After a few words, Eric Mayle of Centenary Church started a blessing.

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,” Mayle said, “Hopefully the first of many in this neighborhood.”

By deconstruction, he meant the piece by piece dismantling of the house in order to save pieces of it. Macon-Bibb County Government, Macon Area Habitat for Humanity and a handful of local churches all hope that deconstruction won’t just fight blight but will also create work for people who need it.

Eric Mayle finished the blessing.

“Today we bless destruction because we know it is only out of this destruction that creation can occur,” he said.

Eric Mayle, left, greets a neighbor of the home being deconstructed in Lynmore Estates on the first day of the work. Mayle works with people in transition from prison or homelessness at Centenary Park in Macon. He says getting the balance between getting the job done and helping that at risk population is tough. Macon Area Habitat Executive Director Harold Tessendorf is to the right. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

It took a while to get here. Harold Tessendorf, executive director of Macon Area Habitat for Humanity, explained how the deconstruction project began.

“Since 2005, our affiliate has been focused on the revitalization of the Lynmore Estates neighborhood of South Macon,” Tessendorf 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, Habitat has been renovating the neighborhood from the inside out by persistently building new, affordable homes. Along the way Tessendorf says they have had to deal with dilapidated homes, too. In 2014 Habitat 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 says, “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 it 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?”

Roshad Ford cuts the grass of one of the few remaining blighted homes on a block of relatively new Habitat for Humanity homes in Lynmore Estates. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

Rochelle Fisher knows. She is Harold Tessendorf’s counterpart in the Akron Ohio Habitat chapter. Fisher says her chapter seized on the deconstruction idea after being challenged by the Mayor of Akron to take houses down as well as they put them up. In Akron, Habitat is in the fourth year of their experiment with deconstruction.

“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 declining population. 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 First so it’s for 200 hundred 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 — -who will finance the first pilot project.

In deconstruction, potentially any large piece of rot free wood is game for salvage and resale. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

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 of it can be sold in the Habitat building supply store. This has become a major source of funding for other Habitat projects.

“Revenue wise we’re gaining somewhere around thirty-thirty five thousand dollars a year,” 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 $3,000,000.

It didn’t take long for the Macon pilot project to make money. About a week after work began in the Lynmore Estates house, a sizable load of two by sixes 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.

Finally, the deconstruction crew is staffed with a worker who by most standards would be unemployable. For Macon Habitat and Harold Tessendorf, that is crucial part of the the project’s mission.

“We’re helping folk who are in crisis,” Tessendorf said.

Chris Patterson, left, grabs his coat before heading into a job interview to become a member of the Macon Area Habitat deconstruction crew in January. Patterson, an old hand at construction, never travels without the tape measure on his hip. He was an early pick for the crew but couldn’t be found when it got closer to getting to work. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

Months before deconstruction began in Macon, project organizers had to find a crew. Church representatives handled the first day of interviews.

At the back of Macon Habitat’s offices, two folding tables were set up for pre-interviews. On the other side of a door, the nitty gritty interviews took place. Jennifer Brookins of St. Paul’s Episcopal walked an applicant through the process.

“Alright, I’ll have you fill this out,” Brookins said, “This is just us seeing where you are in life. Don’t be afraid to mark hardships.”

Jessica Lee, right, talks with a job applicant about being honest about any life issues they may have that might make a job interview difficult on the first day of interviews for the Macon Area Habitat deconstruction crew. Lee is a public defender who was part of the project as part of a larger effort stem recidivism. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

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. Like Harold Tessendorf said — people in crisis. In these interviews, the tougher the place you came from, the more likely you were to shine.

“We’re actually looking at the opposite of what normal employers do,” Jennifer Brookins said.

Chris Patterson talked to Brookins 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. I might have had it almost 15 years now with this one.”

Patterson said you never know when you might have to give a job estimate. He was confident as he went into his interview.

Outside, Larry Young Jr. wasn’t doing as well.

Larry Young Jr. with the sheaf of papers he brought to his job interview for a spot on the deconstruction crew. Young, homeless and a father of four kids with a baby on the way, was late for the interview and did not get a call back. Project organizers acknowledge the challenge getting work for people who need it while getting a crew that will work well. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

“They just turned me down man. My appointment was at 11:45,” Young said, “I’m walking, I’m homeless, I came to the church, 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.Young learned about the jobs at the regular Sunday breakfast at Centenary Church. True enough, he is homeless. He’s also a father to four children and has a fifth on the way. But he was definitely late for the interview, no doubt about it.

He decided to give it another shot. He found Eric Mayle from Centenary Church inside.

Larry Young Jr., right, decided to head back inside the Macon Area Habitat for Humanity office and try one more time to get an interview after being told he had shown up too far past his appointment time to be seen. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

“Can I talk for a second?” Young asked.

“Sir?” Mayle said.

Young asked again. “Can I just speak with you for one second?”

Larry ultimately got his interview. Before he left someone realized it was his birthday.

Eric Mayle’s job is working with people like Young and Patterson when they come to Centenary Church for help. He said the job isn’t easy.

“There’s this balance that I have in my work. On a daily basis it’s really tough,” Mayle said. “You know, to know that these are the boundaries but then you have to use discernment and say ‘this person really is in need’.”

The boundaries in the job interviews were simple. There were 32 people to interview. To make it go smoothly, applicants needed to show up 20 minutes early to fill out paperwork. Chris Patterson arrived at 9:00 am for an 11:15 interview. Larry Young Jr. 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?” Eric Mayle asked, “But then the other side of it too is we want to help you if you can’t.”

Siding ripe for salvage on on the deconstruction pilot project house. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

Months later the crew was on the work site. Neither Larry Young Jr. nor Chris Patterson made it onto the crew. Young didn’t get another interview, but crew foreman Jerry Raffezeder wanted Patterson to be his right hand man. But when work began, he couldn’t be found. He wasn’t the only no show.

“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 itchy to get going.

“I’m ready to work, do something,” Sandifer said, “Sit around, look too much, just kills my day. It kills it. Just kills it.”

Sandifer was referred to the job by his parole officer. He said his girlfriend and their three kids are excited about his job.

“They think it’s good. You know I never really worked before, ever had a steady job and anything like that,” Sandifer said, “This will be my first initial job since I been out.”

This is the first nine to five job Sandifer’s ever had.

Rahjon and the crew will start taking the house apart from the roof and work their way down. A second house house is being prepped for them in the mean time. The hope is that by the time they are ready for a third house, the crew will have its work dialed in and they can just go where they are needed.

The home targeted for the Macon Area Habitat deconstruction pilot project in the Lynmore Estates neighborhood of Macon, GA. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting