Thursday, May 3, 2012

Good concept: "recycled housing"

It's odd there can be such things as unwanted houses. Unwanted where and by whom being the question.

I've just run across the term "recycled housing." I like how it makes you wonder if a house should ever be demolished or left to fall apart.

"Recycled housing" is now mainly a technical term for one of the ways "affordable housing" happens in the wildly money-skewed island economies of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. I don't quite understand the ratios of carrot to stick involved, but it looks like the islands' "recycled housing" programs use a combination of local requirements and charitable appeals to arrange for unwanted houses to be made available for moving instead of being torn down. (Nantucket's currently offline "donor letter," describing some of the logistics and "what makes a good house donation," is available via in its 2008 form.)

A quick search online suggests that only towns hemmed by special economic and physical tensions find it practical to go heaving whole houses around from lot to lot on a regular basis.

But I do like the more generally applicable idea of viewing a house as a whole recyclable entity, maybe not as fungibly as a tin can or a copper pipe or even a beam or a foundation stone, but as something at another point on the same general spectrum of reusability.

So, sure, any renovation project is "recycling" in a way. But within the general category of renovation there's a lot of variety in how much stuff goes to the landfill.

This PDF by the Boston-based Citizens' Housing and Planning Association explains that the generic category of program involved on those islands is "Demolition Delays/Home Recycling." Here's part of the description:
"The use of demolition delays as an affordable housing strategy was pioneered in Nantucket, which bolstered its by-law with an effective Recycled Housing Program. While the approach is particularly well-suited to the Island—with its high housing costs, limited land, over-burdened landfills, seasonal units, and relatively uncongested (off-season) roads — many municipalities can make effective use of demolition delays. The scarcity of building sites in many mature communities has put the least expensive housing at risk of being demolished and replaced by much larger dwellings. Anywhere that modest, existing homes — those with low building-to-land value ratios—lie in the path of someone’s redevelopment plans, demolition delays and home relocation strategies can be effectively used to add to the affordable inventory."
The pattern seems to be followed literally in not all that many other places. Per this UMass site, and this sub-page for Massachusetts, demolition delay laws exist in the prosperous Boston suburb of Arlington and the Cape Cod resort town of Chatham. Makes sense considering those would also be places with steep economic contrasts and frequent historic preservation requirements where a kind of location suitable for a fancy new structure would be probably already the site of a usable older building.

The term "recycled housing" has sometimes also been used for plain renovations that don't involve moving the building (e.g. 20 years ago in Sauk Village, Illinois).

Seems to me the term could be used more often in that more general sense. It could be part of a good anti-entropy rhetoric about not letting homes go to waste just because they're unprofitable where and as they sit. Just one small way to help answer the up-is-down gospel of demolition-as-development now at work in cities that have problems of sprawl and rot in painful contrast to the problems of precious Massachusetts islands and villages.

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