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Extreme Makeover = extreme travesty in Raleigh, NC

I am sad but unfortunately not surprised to read how the television program Extreme Makeover: Home Edition recently documented the destruction of a decrepit but repairable old bungalow in Raleigh, North Carolina (map). Not only did they allow demolition derby cars to smash into the house as part of its demolition, but they refused to allow architectural antique collectors or dealers buy the many features in the house, including heart-pine flooring and wood trim and original windows - money that could have gone to the family who owned the house, or the volunteer organization that pulled together to get the new structure built.

Hopefully Raleigh's Riggins family won't have the same problems that the Llanes family, who participated in an Extreme Makeover Home Edition moment in North Bergen NJ, had; they now cannot afford the much higher property taxes on their new house. The new tax bill, more than $14,000, makes the family feel as if an ax is "hanging over our head. With all the taxes, it's like we're on a chopping block."

The well-built but run-down home in Raleigh, instead of being remodeled or restored (two things it sorely needed!), was replaced with a new house built in one week. Now, I've talked to a lot of contractors, custom home builders and architects over the years, and I talked to a few of them about this particular case. Every one said that there was absolutely no way that a house built in a single week could be better than a half-decent, disposable piece of junk, and certainly wouldn't last half as long as the home it replaced. So: good going, Extreme Makeover. I'm sure the advertisers are happy, though, and that's really all that matters - the event was really for them, and the volunteers were subsidizing them just as much as engaging in healthy and community-building service. The fact that a needy and deserving family got a nice new McMansion is simply a good PR side-effect as far as the advertisers are concerned.

Matthew Brown in Raleigh wrote a letter to his local newspaper, the Raleigh News & Observer, lamenting the loss; many folks in the community share his opinion (although most are happy that a needy family is getting a new house), and Sven Rylesdorn says it better than I could, also pointing out the absurdity of having the demolition derby cars attempt to tear the house down:

The meager humor is that the cars couldn't actually do this - they pulled the columns off, but the porch roof stayed up. The crew had to pre-chainsaw the framing of the house in order to get the walls to fall down when the cars hit it. So then it looks like the place really was not-worth-saving. After all, if a car can knock it down...

Mark Turner talks to Myrick Howard, the head of Preservation North Carolina, about the project; Howard had this to say:

"I believe in charity, but if you really care about good housing, then renovate the existing house and it will cost so much less," he said.

Howard added that the Riggins home was not only salvageable but made of better building materials than Extreme Makeover would use.

"We're replacing real wood and plaster with chip board and sheet rock," he said. "They're getting showered with candy rather than a decent meal."

Personally, I think the Riggins family deserved a lot better than this scripted media event, and they deserve a house at least as sturdy as the old one. These are people who give a lot back to the community - Linda Riggins is a social worker who recently had to stop work due to crippling arthritis, and her husband Bill was a tailor until his degenerating vision caused him to give up that work (he is now legally blind) - and they are actively involved with a local ministry devoted to helping underprivileged children and finding homes for low-income families. But a real restoration project, full of detail work and craftspeople taking their time to do it right, doesn't sell TV commercial time, and then the network and its owners, Disney, would have had to pay for staff rather than getting free volunteers to throw up a ready-built. Apparently, the show did generate a kind of ripple effect of volunteerism in the community, at least for a little while, and that is absolutely wonderful, even if it may not last too long. It's a shame that someone had to get a (comparatively) mediocre house for this to happen, though.

Richard Hart, in his Up Front column in Indy, the Raleigh / Durham / Chapel Hill-area independent weekly, tells us, basically, that we should just shove our cynicism. But I'm not cynical about the effects of the project overall; I think it is wonderful that a needy family got a new home and a community came together to do something not necessarily for themselves. I think it's sad, though, that the only way this can happen is in a scripted event meant to make a bunch of money for Disney and its local commercial sponsors, even to the point of denying the local charities in the event discounted advertising time during the airing of the program.

So let's look at the lessons we can learn from the Extreme Makeover experience. Jennings has a few suggestions: The spirit and infrastructure for volunteerism it created should be capitalized upon long-term; all corporate citizens should make addressing the common good part of their business practices; we should support businesses that accept that responsibility; and there should be incentives for them to pursue it.

What else can we learn? Shouldn't we be embarrassed that families like the Rigginses have to live as they do? We need to open our eyes to the conditions around us and press our elected officials to address them. Cities need to aggressively enforce housing codes and create powerful economic incentives for poor families (and landlords) in older areas to repair their homes, improve their neighborhoods and protect our architectural heritage.

Derek Jennings echoes Mr. Hart's editorial in his feature article in the same issue; luckily, he also gives us a photograph of handsome carpenter Ty Pennington and writes that "his hunk value is considered one of the show's attractions." I'm glad the Indy is looking out for their advertisers and sexually frustrated
housewives everywhere, rather than taking a critical approach to an entire community being manipulated by Disney and its advertisers.

Last but not least, Betsy, a local high school blogger, has discovered that ABC is not picking up the bill for police, city inspectors and other government services related to the media circus; the city of Raleigh is expected to pay. After all, isn't it the American way for the public to be subservient to private profit, and for government to subsidize private business? I call it "socialism for the rich."

more: Scott Parkerson's photographs of the circus around 207 Poplar Street in Raleigh, NC; a slideshow of "the start and the finish" of the new house being built; a related article and comments at Endangered Durham; Triangle Homeworks, the non-profit that put the volunteer effort together, gives a bit of background on their involvement with the project; TV news, as usual, is not in the business of asking questions because everybody loves a good public interest story - their first story on the program ended with this very telling blurb:

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was the 15th-rated show in last week's Nielsen ratings.

Multiple emails and a fax to the show's producers and ABC / Disney have so far been unanswered.