Something isn't right with this scenario:
The City of Charlotte pays to try to repair some 25 run-down houses a year and has a waiting list of 250 houses needing repairs. At the same time, the city is ordering some 70 dilapidated houses a year demolished, through a process called “in rem.”
And this is in a city with a big and growing need for housing affordable to low-income families. Further, it's happening in a country ever more attuned to the need to conserve natural resources and energy.
So it's a welcome gesture for the nonprofit group Habitat for Humanity to start a program offering home repairs to impoverished elderly people, retirees, single parents and the disabled. Habitat – famous for using volunteer labor to build houses for low-income families – has been working on this initiative for months.
The Habitat program gets money from the city, foundations and other donors. It aims to repair up to 18 homes a year. That worthy effort will help keep people in their homes and save housing stock. With the city's program , up to 40 houses a year could be saved from demolition.
The city, through its “in rem” process, for years has been ordering dilapidated homes demolished if they don't meet the housing code and owners can't or won't make repairs. That's because repairing the houses would cost thousands more than demolition.
To take one example that was before the City Council in July, demolishing a 58-year-old, 918-square foot house would cost $4,590, city staff estimates showed. Repairs would have cost an estimated $22,250. For the city to buy, pay off outstanding debts and then repair it would have cost an estimated $117,922. To buy, demolish and build a new house would have cost an estimated $145,612.
Typically the city opts to demolish about a half dozen such houses a month – an estimated 72 houses demolished a year.
To be sure, the problems of dilapidated houses are real and not confined to the private owner or inhabitants. Abandoned houses lure crime and vagrants. Dilapidated buildings lower everyone's property values. Preserving them only to let them sit and fester is no solution.
But the city needs more tools in its toolkit. Scraping away a house and sending its debris to the landfill wastes all the resources that went into building it – and it clogs landfills. In addition, a neighborhood is stronger with law-abiding residents in adequate homes than if it's dotted with vacant lots.
The new Habitat project, of course, can't solve the total problem, but it's a good start, as is the city's repair program. What's needed now are city focus and creativity to figure out how to repair more houses and demolish fewer.
In a community that needs housing for low-income families, tearing down houses may be the least expensive short-term option for the city, but it certainly is not the smartest long-term strategy.