Mary Lou Uttermohlen
Mary Lou Uttermohlen

For Casius Pealer, former Gulf Coast director of Builders of Hope, his time in New Orleans has been a moving experience. Literally. Last fall, Pealer and Builders of Hope relocated 70 historic homes otherwise slated for demolition. The move happened in four months— likely one of the fastest and largest efforts of its kind in U.S. history. Pealer, now a senior sustainable building adviser for the New Orleans–based Affordable Housing Institute, speaks about this innovative approach to preservation and housing.

Builders of Hope was working with a nonprofit housing developer in New Orleans to do a scattered-site infill project in neighborhoods flooded by Katrina and, at the same time, a major hospital expansion was taking out nine square blocks of a historic neighborhood nearby. Since there were going to be a lot of homes demolished at the same time the nonprofit was looking to create infill housing, it just became a natural fit.

Initially, it was a pretty big jigsaw puzzle. It was a dense urban neighborhood and the houses, mostly built between 1900 and 1910, weren’t contiguous—and neither were the sites we were moving them to. Some houses we could only get at if we first removed another house. Some we had to pull out backward. Additionally, the network of utility lines and oak tree limbs meant that we had to remove the roofs before moving each house. It’s a logistical challenge to do this in the midst of a commercial construction project and a working city, but depending on how many homes we ultimately pull, up to 4 million pounds of debris could be saved from landfills, and all of the homes will meet Enterprise Green Communities standards and be affordable to low- or moderate-income families.

A lot of things can be done if there’s the political will to do them. New Orleans Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu hadn’t seen this many houses move either, but he had the faith that this could be done and made a public commitment to save the cultural fabric of the city while still making room for large-scale economic development. We can’t demolish our neighborhoods, but we also can’t force projects like the hospital, a needed resource for the community, to be located outside of the city they’re trying to serve. This project is a way to do both.

The part that takes the best pictures is the houses moving, but the hardest part, and most important part, is the rehab and getting families in them. That’s to come. We’re aware that every house we move leaves a hole in a sense. It’s an opportunity, but it’s a house that needs to be rehabbed now. If you push them all in a landfill, then you’re done and you can you move onto the next project. But if you pull them all, then you really have a hill to climb once you’ve got them out.

The idea of moving houses is rarely considered. People think they have to choose between either historic preservation or economic development. We have had a unique opportunity here in New Orleans to achieve both, and what we’re doing now can be a lesson for urban communities around the country and around the world. As told to Joe Sugarman.aia