"There Goes the Neighborhood."
We talk often at TreeHugger about the importance of building restoration and how "the greenest brick is the one already in the wall." So when I caught up with some recent episodes of 60 Minutes over the holiday break and watched this segment on how some towns in the US are tearing down homes that have been foreclosed upon, I couldn't help but think of the sustainability implications.
In a time when we're experiencing disturbingly high unemployment, poverty and homelessness rates, as well as suffering the devastatingly persistent effects of increased burning of fossil fuels, it is startling to learn that cities such as Cleveland, Ohio are attempting to tear down up to 30,000 homes. And this is happening in other cities across the US.
Aren't there people that could live here, I wondered? Couldn't some of these homes be fixed up and put to use?
The problem is that many of the vacant homes have been vandalized and picked over by thieves scavenging for copper plumbing, aluminum siding, light fixtures and any other pieces of the home that could be sold for scrap. And once this has happened, the destroyed buildings lower property values for the remaining homes in the area, which can cause a ripple effect as other home owners decide to leave the neighborhood and potential buyers look elsewhere.
After tearing down these dilapidated homes, some of the empty lots are being turned into green spaces, like parks or gardens or just left open for grass and trees to grow. We do like green spaces, so from a sustainability perspective, I suppose this could be considered a tiny sliver of a silver lining to this housing crisis. But surely this isn't the best we can do. Is it?
The real problem for these neighborhoods didn't happen until these homes were left vacant. With no one to care for a home and the banks failing to protect the property, the intruders - people perhaps also operating out of desperation due to being homeless or unemployed - are allowed to destroy the homes for scrap. If people were allowed to remain in these homes, there would be less vandalism and no negative ripple effects such destruction can cause for property values and the safety of a neighborhood.
Occupy Homes Instead of Destroying Them
An offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement has offered one plausible alternative to this process of foreclosure, eviction, vandalism and destruction. Last month, the Occupy Our Homes movement kicked off with the goal of preventing evictions, helping keep people in their homes, and as Brian wrote for TreeHugger, even helping move homeless families into vacant homes.
The Rachel Maddow Show had a good segment explaining the historical context of eviction defense in the United States and some of the many cities these actions are happening now.
You can read many more stories of how the Occupy movement is helping to prevent evictions here.
While the new green spaces cities like Cleveland are creating by tearing down houses is somewhat nice - just the tiniest sliver of a silver lining of an already bad situation - a better solution for the housing crisis is preventing the need to tear down these homes in the first place. Strengthening communities is a better goal. Reducing homelessness is a better goal. In places the homes have already been picked over, I can't say for sure if it would be better to try and repair these buildings, but I do understand the construction costs of replacing an entire homes plumbing systems would be very high. (Though, it would also create much-needed construction jobs.) But just focusing on improving property values for the existing home owners is not a full solution to this crisis. We have to do more than just tear down homes.
In the 60 Minutes story, Jim Rokakis, a former county treasurer explained what will be one part of a solution to this mess.
"[Banks are] gonna have to write down principle balances. Because if you don't write down the principle to something that's more realistic, it just guarantees that more people will walk away and more people will default. ... Aren't you better off let's say on a $150,000 mortgage preserving $75,000 in value, as opposed to letting that house go vacant, possibly seeing the house vandalized and dropping to a value well below that? I mean, they helped to cause this mess. And it's not going to fix itself without their cooperation."
While it will likely take "inside" political action to get banks to agree to write down these losses, the Occupy Our Homes movement can provide important "outside" pressure to bring attention to this crisis and help reduce suffering in the meantime.
We've written before about how the Occupy Wall Street movement can be considered a green movement. Keeping families in their houses and safe, preventing the destruction of homes and maintaining a sense of community is just the latest example of that.