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Upcycling Baltimore’s Vacant Buildings Tackles Empty Houses And Unemployment

Two local nonprofits are putting people with barriers to employment to work demolishing blighted properties–and transforming salvaged bricks and beams into valuable building materials.

Upcycling Baltimore’s Vacant Buildings Tackles Empty Houses And Unemployment
[Photos: Bill Shewbridge] [Photos: Bill Shewbridge]

Rowhouses define the landscape of Baltimore: tall and built from classic red bricks, they line the city’s blocks at a rate surpassed only by Philadelphia’s. But in some of the city’s most distressed areas, the rowhouses are most notable for being empty. Behind boarded-up windows, the buildings are left to deteriorate.

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Vacancy has long been an intractable problem for Baltimore. With over 17,000 properties currently empty, the city lacks adequate resources to address the problem. The severity of the issue, in a sense, encapsulates Baltimore’s larger struggles: like many rust belt cities from Detroit to Cleveland, the closure of steel plants gutted Baltimore’s economic core, leaving behind poverty and high rates of unemployment. Wealthier residents trickled out, and investors and real estate companies turned away from Baltimore’s poorer districts. The Baltimore Sun reported that a neighborhood stops growing once the vacancy rate hits 4%. In some of Baltimore’s most distressed areas, it’s over 30%.

In recent years, the city has sharpened its focus on blight; in 2016, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake allotted $10 million in funding to tear down buildings–quadruple what the city allocated in previous years. But there is a lot of lost time to make up for. Over a five-year stretch, the city demolished just over 1,000 buildings, and the number of vacancies continues to grow. “We are dealing with decades of blight, abandonment, and neglect, and trying to reprioritize our appropriations to address this in a comprehensive way,” Rawlings-Blake told The Baltimore Sun.

One facet of Baltimore’s plan involves working with two organizations, Details Deconstruction and Brick + Board. Both social enterprises within the larger nonprofit Humanim, Details Deconstruction and Brick + Board operate “as two sides of the same coin,” Brick + Board director Max Pollock told Co.Exist in an interview. Details hires people facing barriers to employment–incarceration, a history of addiction, or lack of education–and puts them to work deconstructing Baltimore’s homes. As opposed to the brutal demolition squads usually deployed to take down a house, Details works more mindfully and more slowly, taking apart the houses brick by brick and preserving the materials to be repurposed. “There’s a lot of value in what most people see as eyesores,” Pollock says.

Details contracted with the city on a pilot program in 2014, during which they deconstructed 35 homes on the 2400 block of E. Eager Street. During the course of the successful program, Details extracted around $55,000 worth of salvageable materials from the properties.

Because deconstruction is a slower process, it’s significantly more expensive than demolition. For Pollock, that’s kind of the point: the greater human effort required means that Details is able to employ more people who often struggle to find jobs in other sectors, tackling what Pollock calls Baltimore’s two-pronged issues of blight and unemployment. But he recognizes the difficulty in sustaining a program that hinges on extra money in a city as financially strapped as Baltimore.

That’s where Brick + Board comes in. The second nonprofit grew as “a natural offshoot” of Details, Pollock says. Brick + Board takes the materials that Details salvages and transforms them into usable wares, which it sells to designers, architects, artisans, and homeowners. Brick + Board follows the same employment principles as Details, often hiring people directly from its partner nonprofit to learn more high-level skills, like milling and warehouse management; the two companies have employed over 100 people. To date, Brick + Board has sold its repurposed beams and construction materials to over 50 bars and restaurants in the mid-Atlantic region; their salvaged goods can be found trimming Exelon’s new, $160 million headquarter building in downtown Baltimore.

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Brick + Board’s goal is to become a self-sustaining enterprise, generating enough revenue from sales to keep both itself and Details afloat. The organization still receives foundation money–grants financed the startup costs required to purchase machinery and warehouse space–but Pollock says they intend to eventually operate independently. There certainly will be no shortage of work for the organizations: Details has taken down roughly 200 rowhouses in Baltimore so far, extracting 750,000 bricks and over 200,000 board feet of lumber. Though the $5.8-billion-per-year brick-manufacturing industry is a force to reckon with, Pollock is optimistic that recycled wares will continue to draw steady interest.

The question remains, though: with so many vacant properties still left idle in Baltimore, what’s to be done with them? Drawing off a solution that’s proven effective in cities across the country, like Grand Rapids, Michigan, the local group Housing Our Neighbors is pushing to convert some of the vacant properties into affordable housing, through establishing a community land trust that would regulate the rents in accordance with local incomes and decide which homes to preserve and which to demolish. It’s a straightforward solution that falls in line with the “housing first” approach to addressing issues of homelessness and poverty, but Barbara Samuels, the managing director of the ACLU of Maryland’s Fair Housing Project, told The Washington Post that housing is only half the battle—the city needs to add jobs.

That’s why, despite the slow-moving nature of demolition work, Pollock remains confident that it could provide a stable source of employment for the city’s disadvantaged. Most deconstruction efforts–with the exception of Portland, which passed legislation outlawing demolition of the city’s oldest homes–don’t make it past the “project” phase, but “Baltimore is pretty progressive,” Pollock says, and the city government continues to work closely with Details and Brick + Board. “I don’t think that what we’re doing is going to save the city,” Pollock says, “but our philosophy is that any solution to these vacancy issues–which are not unique to Baltimore–has to begin with a job. That’s been our approach the whole way.”

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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