Americans demolish some 250,000 homes annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and many of them are more solidly built than the new structures that replace them. Though in recent years developers have increased efforts to salvage reusable items such as bathtubs, light fixtures and mantels, mountains of demolition debris still clog our nation’s landfills.
Nancy Murray, a former advertising executive in Raleigh, North Carolina, saw gold where others saw garbage. Why not, she wondered, turn our inventory of sturdy but out-of-style housing stock into affordable housing? In late 2006, Murray founded Builders of Hope, a nonprofit organization that saves tear-down homes from the wrecking ball, rehabilitates them with health- and environmentally conscious materials, and either moves the rescued houses into new clustered communities or leaves them as anchors to help revitalize existing neighborhoods.
Builders of Hope uses a combination of licensed staff contractors and volunteers, including AmeriCorps workers, members of organized church and community groups, and individuals. The program teaches volunteers skills and trades such as tiling, sheetrocking and landscaping. Funding comes via home sales, private donations and grants.
Benefits all around
In 2008, Builders of Hope saved an estimated 2 million pounds of building material from the landfill. Most of the rescued homes were built between the 1930s and 1960s, and many are loaded with valuable features such as wood flooring, solid-surface countertops, crown molding and built-ins. Materials in older homes are “stout and strong,” Murray says.
After saving the homes, Builders of Hope installs modern HVAC systems, plumbing, wiring and siding. The group also installs low-emissivity (low-E), double-pane, Energy Star windows and new roofs, weatherizes crawl spaces, and improves insulation. “We’re really creating a brand-new structure out of pre-existing framing and interiors,” says Lew Schulman, Builders of Hope chief operating officer. “The homes are rehabbed to the point you can call them ‘new.’” Still, about 70 percent of the original structures are saved.
Builders of Hope’s first project, a 24-home, 6-acre community in Raleigh called Barrington Village, opened in 2008 and is now fully occupied. Selling for $89,000 to $185,000, the homes accommodate low- and moderate-income workers who would otherwise be priced out of the housing market.
Participating in the program is also financially attractive for home donors. Rather than paying a demolition crew as much as $25,000 to tear down a structure, donors can pay Builders of Hope $5,000 to help offset moving costs and may qualify for a federal tax credit of as much as 80 percent of the home’s appraised value.
Community across America
Barrington Village and the group’s other projects, such as State Street Village (currently under construction in downtown Raleigh), position houses in cul-de-sacs with generous front porches to encourage neighborhood relationships and increase safety.
“The community is peaceful and serene,” says Dawana Stanley, who moved into Barrington Village with her husband and five children from a rental in nearby Cary. “There’s space for a yard. I’m going to plant a garden.”
Now president of the neighborhood homeowners’ association, Dawana says the community is a far cry from the New York City public housing project in which she grew up. She considers the recycling aspect an added bonus. “I was overjoyed someone was thinking about the planet,” she says.
Some in the building industry have questioned the viability of forming new neighborhoods with disparate architectural aesthetics. “People used to make disparaging comments, like, ‘You’re crazy. Who would want to live in a community that’s patchwork?’” Schulman says.
Turns out, a lot of people. The Wall Street Journal wrote that Barrington Village might be “the most politically correct housing development on the planet.” Then the Raleigh city council gave fast-track approval for direct purchase of a plum, 7-acre parcel near downtown for State Street Village.
The Builders of Hope team is at work in neighboring Durham, Cary, Chapel Hill, Fuquay-Varina and Charlotte, and is talking to leaders in Atlanta. “We have a greater number of houses sitting vacant than we’ve had in decades and more individuals and families in need of healthy, affordable housing than ever before,” Murray says. “The most expedient way to get people back into housing is to rehabilitate the inventory we have.”
The Builders of Hope model could be replicated in every city, Murray says. “The knee-jerk response to blighted housing is to tear it down,” she says. “But every home we save becomes someone’s dream home all over again.”
Multimedia journalist and TV host Wanda Urbanska is the author or co-author of seven books, including Less is More (New Society, 2009). She’s at work on a book about Builders of Hope, tentatively titled Building Solutions in a Tear-Down World, while living for a year in Warsaw, Poland, with her 12-year-old son, Henry. Check out her blog at