Rescuing Vacant Homes, Revitalizing Communities

This inspiring article from Solar Today is about a nonprofit, Builders of Hope. They do complete green retrofits to vacant or foreclosed homes, move them to clustered communities and sell them to low-income families at cost. Major development projects are underway in 10 communities and 6 cities.

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.

Says Founder and CEO Nancy Welsh, "We have a greater number of houses sitting vacant than we have for 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, comfortable green homes in safe communities while creating jobs for local builders and the construction industry."

Americans demolish about 225,000 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% of landfill content in many communities. The US is also experiencing an epidemic of foreclosures and many homes sit vacant for months.

By rehabilitating old, vacant houses, typically built between 1930-1960, 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, 65% 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
  • efficient 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 paints

Other improvements typically include replacing 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 reduce energy costs.

Each rehabilitated home is obtained a 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% 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.

Street Scene After

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 Upcycling 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 renovating 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 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. The 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 rehabbed homes located just south of downtown Raleigh, North Carolina.

Each 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 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, builders elected to insulate with spray polyurethane foam, 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.

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, 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 housig, and I just had to do something."

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Builders of Hope is a nonprofit based in Raleigh, NC, 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 LEED standards for community development. Major development projects are underway in 10 communities and 6 cities.

Richard Crume, an environmental engineer by training. has worked for corporate and governmental organizations in the energy and environmental fields for over 30 years. He’s an adjunct professor at North Carolina A&T State University, teaching a graduate level course on 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.

This article first appeared in Solar Today, July/August 2012, the magazine of the American Solar Energy Society.

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