For tackling Philly's blight problem, a nonprofit says it's better than a bulldozer
By the time Greg Trainor arrived in Philadelphia in 2008 as a 20-year-old Temple undergraduate, he had already seen and done a lot.
He had gutted and rebuilt houses in New Orleans in the months after Hurricane Katrina. Fought fires in Georgia. Trained as a construction worker, a firefighter, and in disaster response. At 18, unsure of his path toward college, the North Jersey native had joined the nonprofit AmeriCorps and fled to the South. Two years later, he was ready to come back.
It wasn't long after arriving in Philadelphia, though, that Trainor noticed some similarities to the devastated places where he had worked. Someone told him that there were tens of thousands of vacant or blighted properties here.
"I kind of had this epiphany moment where I realized, this is a disaster zone," said Trainor, now 29. "But it was a man-made disaster, and it happened gradually over decades.
"I thought, it doesn't have to be this way, and that it deserved the same level of response."
So Trainor set out to find a solution. He had no staff, no company, and no insurance for the jobs, but he had a theory: If he could deconstruct abandoned houses here, as he did in New Orleans, "unbuilding" them piece by piece rather than demolishing them, he could improve not only the blight problem, but also help with other crises in Philadelphia, such as unemployment, pollution and waste.
"At the heart of this was neighborhood revitalization," Trainor said. "The more research I did [on deconstruction], I was just blown away. I said, 'I really think there's something to this.' "
Cities from Seattle and Portland to Baltimore have been experimenting with deconstruction as an alternative to demolition. With more than 245,000 residential structures and nearly 50,000 commercial structures demolished nationwide each year, generating by some estimates about 136 million tons of waste, preservationists have touted deconstruction as a system that could transform development practices — and cities.
Skeptics, however, have pegged deconstruction as an inefficient and initially expensive system — one, they say, that cannot expeditiously tackle urban blight.
The idea behind it is simple: When a home falls victim to blight, a developer, property owner, even a city planner can hire a team of deconstructionists to dismantle it. Rather than eliminating the house in a quick job with a demolition truck, the team instead strips it down, salvaging doors, bathtubs, and bricks along the way. By using manual labor, advocates say, deconstruction can boost local employment.
It's an approach that Trainor's deconstruction company, Philadelphia Community Corps, is banking on. In 2010, it was estimated, 40,000 parcels here — both properties and tracts of land — were vacant. Recent estimates from the city's Department of Licenses & Inspections put the number of vacant structures alone at about 15,000.
The 2010 report highlighted startling statistics: that vacant parcels have a blighting effect on the entire city, dropping property values by a combined $3.6 billion; that maintenance costs — waste clean-up, police and fire services — total more than $20 million each year; and that with many parcels delinquent on property taxes, Philadelphia's distressed schools are missing at least $2 million in revenue each year.
"There are way more abandoned buildings than we can possibly take down," said Karen Guss, communications director at L&I, the city department that works to demolish imminently dangerous properties.
In mostly West and South Philadelphia, about 230 properties are considered "imminently dangerous," meaning they pose such significant health and safety concerns that they must be eradicated immediately. And 4,000 more are deemed "unsafe" by L&I — still dangerous, but not critically unstable.
Blighted properties can usher in other problems. One vacant home in a neighborhood can lead to another, and another. As many properties become vacant, nearby property values drop, and homes stop selling. Blocks become overgrown and littered, creating opportunities for crime and drug activity and squatters.
Cities take differing approaches to tackling the issue. Some, such as Baltimore, for a long time focused on demolition — purging the structures immediately, creating the possibility of revitalization or an expansion of green space. In Detroit, a land bank offers vacant properties through auctions, in some cases selling homes to bidders for just a few thousand dollars. And Chicago offered residents single lots for as little as $1.
In 2015, Philadelphia opened its own land bank to streamline sales of vacant tax-delinquent properties to private developers.
According to Guss, Philadelphia largely focuses on demolition for its "imminently dangerous" and "unsafe" properties. But for other less-urgent and vacant properties across the city, Trainor sees a place for Philadelphia Community Corps, his deconstruction company.
Demolition has the potential to unleash pollutants into the environment — dust, asbestos, lead and others, Trainor said. And because blighted homes often exist in low-income communities, where asthma rates are high and access to health care is low, demolition can be even more hazardous.
Founded in 2014, Philadelphia Community Corps operates as a fully insured nonprofit that can be hired by developers and property owners. It employs disadvantaged individuals, dropouts from school or the formerly jailed, training them and getting them OSHA certification along the way. At a warehouse in North Philadelphia, the company resells materials pulled from deconstruction sites.
Trainor and his partner, Alex McNeil, say benefits exist for developers, too: Building materials can be written off as tax deductions, making deconstruction less expensive than it initially appears. Their team has tackled a few dozen projects — they are currently working on rowhouses in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood — but in the future, they said, they hope to partner with the city. (Guss, at L&I, said the city is open to increasing certain partnerships with nonprofits to address blight.)
"Our city is changing and growing again," Trainor said. "Let's finish this and clear these abandoned homes neighborhood by neighborhood, until it's finally done."