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In January 2002, the D.C. Housing Authority launched an experiment in a new, eco-friendly approach to getting rid of public housing. Residents of Southeast’s Stanton Dwellings and the surrounding neighborhood would disassemble the housing project’s stock, salvaging the building materials for resale. Stanton Dwellings is slated to be replaced by a mixed-income development, and estimates for the resale value of recycled parts ran as high as $700,000.
That utopian “deconstruction” mission, though, has foundered on the hard facts of retail. The stripping and salvaging process was finished at the end of October. But now, a stockpile of partstwo-by-fours and cabinets, bathtubs and shinglesis languishing in storage, unable to attract buyers. The merchandise sits in a cluster of some of the very units it came from in Southeast.
A unit off Stanton Road and Alabama Avenue SE holds bundles of insulation duct-taped together. In a room nearby, roughly a dozen toilets, two dozen marble sinks, and three dozen steel kitchen sinks sit on the floor. A stack of bathtubs lies under a tree outside.
With demolition of the Stanton Dwellings’ remains set to start in about a month, unsold materials may have to be relocated soon.
The program was “wonderful,” says Brenda Graham, co-director of the board for Just U Wait ‘N See, a community-development group that helped hire workers for the project. “We just had a problem selling the recycled material in that area.”
Participants in the program praise it for teaching them the skills to take buildings apart. Mark Johnson, a 28-year-old former Stanton Dwellings resident, says he enjoyed “learning how to do something I [didn’t] know how to do at first, and the experience that came with it.”
Priscilla Ard, 37, another former Stanton resident, says she learned, among other things, how to detect water damage and lead paintskills she’s now hoping to apply by starting a deconstruction company of her own.
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But one of Ard’s partners in the new company, Jamal Harris, says the resale part of the Stanton Dwellings program was a letdown. Harris, 31, who did demolition, safety monitoring, and retail work, believes that the sale of the recovered material got started too slowly and was too disorganized. “There is a high demand for it,” Harris says, “but you have to let the public know.”
Housing Authority officials declined to say how much of the salvage has been sold. Adrianne Todman, consultant to the office of the housing authority’s executive director, says the agency doesn’t want to see the project labeled a failure. She adds that the project’s purpose was to explore the feasibility of deconstruction rather than make money.
Sales have missed projections despite low prices and some 1,000 visitors at the store the program opened at Stanton Road and Alabama Avenue SE early last summer. According to prices posted online by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), the nonprofit tapped by the housing authority to help train the workers, $25 could have claimed a toilet, a water heater, a cultured-marble sink, or no fewer than 50 5-foot two-by-fours. Medicine cabinets sold for $8 a pop, oak flooring panels for $1 per square foot. If you had had only a quarter, you could have gotten a footlong piece of trim or molding. Or a brick.
Homeowners and construction workers alike ventured to the store, housing authority project manager Thomas Jones says. But the materials available didn’t always match their needs.
“Most builders aren’t going to buy oldthey’re going to buy new,” he says, and the trick is to find contractors who are working on older buildings that might require parts from Stanton Dwellings, which was built in 1952.
Late this past fall, the Home Depot approach to resale ended. Rather than having consumers come in during regular hours and browse windows, lumber, roof turbines, and other salvaged materials, the store now shows the wares by appointment to representatives of potential-customer firms.
ILSR President Neil Seldman says that used materials have found a market in other parts of the country. A deconstruction company in Portland, Ore., for instance, has 39 employees and nailed down revenues of $1.2 million last year. One in Pittsburgh grossed $328,000 in 2002 and projects a gross of $500,000 this year.
Housing officials say they haven’t decided whether to try another salvage-and-resale program in the future. Still, says Todman, the housing authority hasn’t given up on this one.
“We’d like to try to sell off as much as we can before we call this a day,” she says. CP