Construction is close to being done this house in Cape Coral, Fla. The Cape Coral and Lehigh Acres areas of Southwest Florida around Fort Myers, have foreclosure rates above the national average. (Sarah Coward/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Nancy Welsh is the founder of the Raleigh, N.C.-based nonprofit Builders of Hope, which works to change the face of affordable housing by rehabilitating abandoned houses slated for demolition.

It’s no secret that the United States is in the midst of a housing crisis. Foreclosure notices were filed against a record-setting 2.9 million properties last year and 1.2 million in the first half of this year. Yet the price of many foreclosed homes remains unaffordable for a majority of Americans.

Policymakers are desperately searching for a solution to the housing crisis. They fantasize about tearing down 3 million homes – roughly 60,000 homes per state – all in an effort to jump-start the housing market and the economy. What they fail to realize is the opportunity these homes offer for creating the affordable housing that Americans so desperately need. If the average U.S. household size is 2.58 people, the 3 million homes potentially slated for tear down could provide shelter for 7.74 million people — or roughly the population of the state of Virginia.

The need for affordable housing goes far beyond those in poverty. The housing crisis is drastically affecting the middle class as well. Millions of Americans — many of whom are college-educated, working-class people — are struggling to put roofs over their heads because of a lack of affordable housing.

Typically, housing should not exceed 30 percent of a household’s pre-tax income. This includes all home-related expenses: rent or mortgage payments, property taxes, utilities, insurance and homeowners association fees. According to recent report by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, more than a third of Americans are housing-cost burdened and forced to make sacrifices when it comes to necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care in order to cover the cost of their home. In fact, in households earning between $45,000 and $60,000 a year, the percentage of housing-cost-burdened families almost doubled between 2001 and 2009. In addition, in 2009, 19.4 million American households spent more than half of their yearly incomes on housing.

This affordable housing void has resulted in many of the working class being priced out of the cities where they work, unless they choose to live in at-risk communities and dilapidated buildings.

Others have been forced to move in with family members or friends to save money during these economically challenging times. There is also a growing trend among young people of waiting to leave the nest, which can further burden their potentially struggling parents. In 2010, 1.6 million more young adults ages 20 to 29 were living with their parents compared with 2005.

We have millions of people in need of permanent housing and millions of units of vacant housing available. Instead of demolishing these homes, the inventory should be reused to rebuild the stagnant housing market, as well as address the immediate need for affordable housing and job creation. Rehabilitating these homes would also save millions of pounds of construction debris from our nation’s already overburdened landfills.

Beyond the creation of new affordable housing for America’s workforce, home recycling and rehabilitation also offers environmental benefits. A study released Aug. 31 by North Carolina State University found that rehabilitating an existing home through our organization’s Extreme Green process, for example, defers 19.36 tons of carbon dioxide when compared with building a new home using traditional construction methods. This is equivalent to deferring the CO2 emissions from 1,979 gallons of unleaded gasoline.

In addition, each home that is torn down adds approximately 35,000 pounds of debris to the landfill. Tearing down 3 million homes would send roughly 105 billion pounds of debris to the landfill.

By recycling homes and revitalizing blighted neighborhoods, we can put the surplus of vacant and foreclosed houses to work creating a more sustainable future for our country. It’s time to move beyond the wrecking ball and start getting Americans back into homes.

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