Non-Profit "Builders of Hope" Tackles Tough House-Moving Challenge in New Orleans ~

It was a parade of homes, but not the kind you’re used to hearing about: over the course of 11 weeks at the beginning of 2011, house-moving contractors lifted 70 homes off their foundations at the site of the planned Veterans Affairs hospital complex in New Orleans and moved them to empty lots in nearby neighborhoods. The move was orchestrated by Builders of Hope, a Raleigh, N.C.-based non-profit organization committed to saving abandoned houses from demolition and rehabbing the structures into energy-efficient, green, affordable housing for working Americans. After completing several successful projects in North Carolina, Builders of Hope has expanded into New Orleans and Dallas, pursuing an ambitious agenda of remaking whole neighborhoods into affordable green communities. But the New Orleans project is proving to be a tough challenge. Coastal Connection spoke at length on October 20 with Nancy Welsh, the charismatic founder and CEO of Builders of Hope. Simply finding the land to place the houses within the required radius of the hospital site was a major undertaking, Welsh explained: “There are a lot of empty lots in New Orleans, but there are legal issues — they have not all been legally released from their original owners, even though often the original owners can’t be found.” Under the pressure to stay ahead of a planned demolition, the original house-moving operation went off without a hitch. “We were moving ten houses in a week, sometimes five houses in a single day,” says Welsh. But arranging the financing to rehab the buildings has created some delays — and in the meantime, the relocated houses stood unprotected from the elements for months, and rehab has begun on only a few. The Times-Picayune has been following the effort since January (“Relocation of historic homes from Veterans Affairs hospital footprint nearly complete,” by Bill Barrow), when the paper reported, “Builders of Hope, acting as a city of New Orleans contractor, is nearing completion of a $3.2 million program to move historic homes from the planned federal veterans hospital footprint to other parcels in Mid-City. Through Thursday, the effort involved 69 structures being moved, with three houses scheduled for Friday and four more identified as movable but not yet scheduled.” In May, the paper reported on work to stabilize and preserve the old buildings (“Homes moved from VA hospital footprint are undergoing repairs,” by R. Stephanie Bruno). By then, residents of the neighborhoods where the buildings landed were beginning to wonder about the wisdom of the whole plan. Moving the houses had required roofs to be torn off to enable the structures to roll under low bridges, and replacing the roofs was taking time. Wrote the Times Picayune, “It's the slowness of the ‘drying-in’ process, whereby the homes get a new roof and are made impervious to the elements, that has caused concern. Critics complain that without roofs, the old houses are taking on rain and further deteriorating. Others were disappointed with the decision to move some of the ‘topless’ houses to neighborhoods already struggling with issues of blight.” This month, the Times Picayune reported again on simmering impatience with the program’s progress (“Homes moved from VA Hospital site still await renovation,” by R. Stephanie Bruno). “A New Orleans City Council committee recently peppered city officials with questions about the slow pace of placing roofs the homes,” the paper reported. “Evidence of actual renovations would please neighborhood leaders like Jennifer Farwell, president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, who has said she's worried rehabs won't happen fast enough to save the buildings' distinctive historic features or to avoid contributing to neighborhood blight.” Welsh says that all of the relocated buildings are now dried in under roof, and she argues, “the fact that the houses are sitting there waiting for the total reconstruction, a lot of people are dramatizing and sensationalizing that, okay, they’re still sitting there and they haven’t been re-done. But before we rescued them, the majority of them were already boarded and vacant from Katrina. So it’s not as if we took something that was beautiful and viable and tax-revenue-generating and moved it and turned it into nothing. It’s just that we relocated it and it’s awaiting the funding. They will absolutely be rehabilitated.” Funding for the original move — $3.2 million dollars from a $79-million pot of federal hurricane recovery funds earmarked for developing the VA hospital site — is used up now. Says Welsh, “The city was dependent on the state, and the state was using federal funds to get us to the next phase of the process, the actual reconstruction of the house once it was set on its new foundation.” About the funding to continue the work, Welsh says, “The issue now is that the banks are not willing to do the construction financing without a guarantee from the city. And that guarantee was promised, via federal funding, through the state. And there are contracts that are out there that are still awaiting signatures, so we are still waiting on the funding.” But she adds, “We are also seeking other sources of funding outside of the city now, through grants and foundations and others, to try and circumvent that wait so that we can go ahead and get started.” The New Orleans project is a departure from the formula that worked well for Builders of Hope in Raleigh, N.C., where the organization moved houses of different ages and styles from various locations and clustered them into “green communities,” selling the homes at cost to working families. In New Orleans, Builders of Hope is doing the opposite: taking the buildings from a single area and moving them to scattered sites in the surrounding city. In Dallas, meanwhile, the group’s big project is a rehabilitation of a large, abandoned, crime-ridden multifamily project near an existing Veterans’ Administration hospital, where Builders of Hope intends to provide housing for hospital workers and for veterans receiving health care services. As the organization expands beyond North Carolina, it is adapting to new conditions, says Welsh. “We’re taking our time and discovering the ins and outs and the differences of each city and its government, and the way that projects are accomplished there. And the housing needs are also different for those cities, based on the populations there. In Dallas, for example, you’ve got veterans and Hispanics in very large numbers, and they’re looking for smaller individual houses. In New Orleans, you’ve got a lot of other issues — you’ve got historic preservation, you’ve got existing neighborhoods that are in great disrepair, tons of blight, and then, 65 percent of your population is living on under $35,000. So on top of it being an expensive place to build, with very high insurance, you have a population that is almost all living in poverty. So that has its own set of challenges. But in Raleigh, on the other hand, we’re selling quicker than we can get them moved out there. We’ve got tons of teachers and firefighters and government employees — 70 percent of the working population qualifies to be able to move into one of our new houses, and yet there’s no new construction going on in that area. People are flocking to try to get into green sustainable housing.” Delays in slower-moving New Orleans don’t discourage Welsh, she says. While the relocated homes await their rehabilitation, architectural features such as decorative porch woodwork are being stored and preserved. Meanwhile, Builders of Hope plans to continue with another phase of house moving from the VA site, hauling the next batch of rescued buildings to a master-planned community being constructed in cooperation with Maryland-based non-profit Enterprise Community Partners. “We’re going to be providing the house moving and construction services,” says Welch, “but the ownership will be retained by the master developers, and those will be rental properties.” A Times Picayune photo gallery of the rescued homes from the VA site shows a collection of classic “quaint fixer-uppers” — small, simple structures, some with interesting woodwork, others without, but all in need of extensive repair before they can be habitable. But to Welsh, these old bones represent not a nuisance to be disposed of, but a resource that should not go to waste. “Just to tear down all this abandoned housing all around the country is the worst possible thing that we could do, not only for the environment, but socially, because we need to get people back into housing,” argues Welsh. “The numbers that we are seeing indicate that there has been a two-million household absorption rate of people doubling up and living together, and then the homeless rate is up to 3.5 million now. So it’s not as if the housing isn’t needed. It’s just that it’s in such a state of disrepair. And the builders really need to rally together to absorb all this inventory before we can get back to the business of building new construction.”