Sensible Solutions for Abandoned Homes

Sensible Solutions for Abandoned Homes
By Ted Reiff

This week I began teaching a TRP 14-day class for would-be deconstruction workers in Freeport, Illinois, a small town (population 25,000) just west of Rockford and adjacent to the picturesque Pecatonica River. Like many towns in the U.S., Freeport has a sizable backlog of abandoned houses slated for demolition. The trainees spend three days in the classroom and the remainder deconstructing one of those houses. It's ideal on-the-job training.

Dilapidated homes can be a vexing residential eyesore, whether inhabited or not. There's one in my neighborhood; I frequently pass it while out walking. It's an isolated case, so, despite having been empty for years, isn't much of a drag on the area. When entire neighborhoods are mainly comprised of neglected or abandoned houses, it's a different story—one that often includes chronic vandalism and low-level crime.

There are really only three ways to remove abandoned houses: traditional demolition, which costs from $5,000 to $15,000 per house; deconstruction, which costs more; or a combination of deconstruction and demolition.

Freeport chose deconstruction training as a form of economic development and blight relief in a single package. Dozens of additional houses have been set aside, to be deconstructed by my formerly unemployed and under-employed trainees, after they have completed the TRP course. In the long run, it's a very viable and cost effective solution. The city pays more initially, but winds up with good, marketable building materials and a group of well-trained workers.

Whatever approach is chosen, no municipality has the funds to immediately rid itself of large swaths of abandoned buildings. When sitting on hundreds (Freeport) and sometimes thousands (Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago) of abandoned houses, the removal costs must be spread over many years.

What can be done in the meantime? How can cities improve the appearance of largely abandoned neighborhoods and slow the spread of blight? One answer is to turn empty houses and, more specifically, the sheets of plywood used to board up windows, doors and other areas, into backdrops for art. Chicago-based artist Chris Toepfer has been in the business doing exactly that for over 20 years, embellishing houses in more than 30 cities, many in the hard-hit rust belt. He recently did some work in Oak Park, near Sacramento, which is how I learned of him.

Toepfer's plywood paintings are simple, but colorful—flowers, musical notes, painted frames. The objective is not to fool people into thinking the houses are occupied, but to make abandoned neighborhoods more attractive, which can have benefits beyond the aesthetic. Reductions in graffiti and low-level crime have been reported in some areas.

In the Oak Park instance, a local youth group is replicating Toepfer's approach over a wider area, with support from the city.

For more information, here are links to articles in Sacramento and Chicago publications:

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