City officials celebrated Milwaukee’s first deconstruction project on Thursday, admiring the work of a contractor taking apart a vacant house on the city’s north side — some two years after a policy was enacted requiring blighted homes to be taken apart instead of torn down.
The Milwaukee contractor Spencer Renovation and Construction began taking apart a house at 3041 N. 6th Street about two weeks ago, pulling out valuable old-growth timber used in the home’s construction. It was the first of 50 houses Spencer plans to deconstruct by April under a $1.2 million contract with the city.
Milwaukee officials see the policy as a chance to salvage materials found in historic houses, avert the environmental toll of demolishing homes and put more people to work in the deconstruction industry. Although it takes just a couple workers to demolish a home, crews of 10 or more need more than a week to perform a deconstruction.
Ald. Milele Coggs, backed by Spencer’s crew, said the deconstruction policy could help the city make the best of a spate of foreclosures across the city. Still, it’s unclear if deconstruction will remain the city’s sole means of combating blight.
“We’re taking what is an unfortunate situation with the foreclosures and these homes, many of which are beyond repair, and using it as an opportunity,” Coggs said. “An opportunity for job creation, an opportunity to create a whole business market — and for training, that is much needed for job opportunities.”
But the work comes after months of false starts and concessions in the city’s deconstruction ordinance. First enacted in late 2017, the policy required homes built before 1930 to be taken apart instead of demolished. Rather than curtailing blight, though, the policy was found to have effectively halted the city’s work to clear away dilapidated properties.
The deconstruction bids the city received in 2018 came in either incomplete or too costly. As a result, the list of blighted homes only grew longer — going from having 380 properties on it to more than 500 in 2018.
Faced with a lack of progress, city officials put the deconstruction policy on hold earlier this year. They allowed demolition work to resume even while requiring the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services to perform some deconstruction jobs.
The policy switch hasn’t necessarily been of much help. DNS officials told city officials in early October that the department had performed just 44 demolitions in 2019, giving rise to concerns that it wouldn’t meet its goal of tearing down 100 homes this year. Ald. Bob Bauman said it has been “somewhat perplexing” why it has taken the department so long to carry out the deconstruction policy.
“The main problem is how long it has taken to execute, and that has built up pressure on aldermen for constituents who want to see these properties gone,” Bauman said. “There was a lot of pressure to speed up the process which kind of happened, kind of didn’t.”
The city’s pause on its deconstruction policy expires in March, meaning that demolition jobs could once again be banned. But Bauman said it’s unclear if the city will really return to relying solely on deconstruction to eliminate blight.
City officials, he said, will be watching Spencer’s work closely.
“There’s a fair amount riding on the success of this, moving forward,” Bauman said.
Billy Spencer, president and CEO of Spencer Renovation & Construction, said he’s happy to be performing deconstruction work for the city. Having founded his company in 2013, he’s been doing these sorts of jobs for several years now. The firm pulls old-growth timber, glass windows and other materials from old properties. Some flooring that’s in good condition can fetch $2 a square foot on the market.
Spencer said he’s also happy to have work that will keep his crew busy through the winter. And there’s little doubt that the materials he salvages from homes are in high-demand.
“Everybody’s been waiting,” Spencer said. They cleared out my whole warehouse. They need more wood because they’re doing more houses. That’s why we have to make sure that we’re taking everything down and making sure it’s reusable.”Follow @natebeck9