The historic preservation movement has long been eschewed as elitist, expensive, and certainly at odds with affordable housing options. It is sometimes cited that historic preservation is too expensive, and not energy efficient. However, shifting preferences (“back to the city” movement, greater appreciation of quality construction) coupled with the rise of the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit (HRTC) are beginning to change our attitudes towards historic preservation. I believe that preservation of our existing housing stock is the “smartest” growth there is, and provides better affordable housing opportunities as well.
America is a prosperous nation that is failing to meet the housing needs of its citizens. In the past 20 years, America has undergone drastic changes in its approach to providing affordable and adequate housing to its poorest citizens. The federal government no longer builds public housing - subsidies and tax incentives to private developers, CDBG funds, and rental assistance now shape our affordable housing tactics.
This issue is not solely limited to our nation’s poor. There is a crisis in affordable “workforce housing” for our teachers, police officers, nurses - those whose services we depend on, yet can’t afford to live near their place of employment and are priced out of all but the lowest cost-to-income markets (see Historic Preservation and Affordable Housing: The Missed Connection).
The housing problem has generally been seen as an urban issue; however, since the recent housing crisis, we have seen more families struggling in suburbs and non-metropolitan areas. It affects renters and homebuyers, the young and the old. It is obvious that America needs affordable housing options - and the typical approach has been new construction made “affordable” though either subsidies or low-quality construction. And from a policy perspective, we continue to incentivize this type of housing and development; however, the market usually dictates location - often “in the fringes,” compounding the issue of sprawl and reinforcing automobile-dependency.
Seen as an environmentally-sensitive alternative to traditional construction, movements such as LEED, Smart Growth, New Urbanism and Low Impact Development all tout sustainability as their guiding principles. And there are times when this type of new construction and development is appropriate; however, it is not “smart” to grow at the expense of our viable resources already extant in downtowns and neighborhoods. It is akin to saying “I’m totally into sustainability, being “green”, etc....” but really all you do is recycle and shop at Whole Foods.
If we are going to talk sustainability, historic preservation really makes the most sense. Donovan Rypkema, a preservationist with a no-nonsense view of preservation cites many benefits - economic, environmental, civic/cultural that preservation can generate.
When we preserve, restore, revitalize, or otherwise put use back into a building, it can be seen as the antithesis to sprawl. Open space, farmland, wildlife habitat are all saved when we choose historic preservation. Additionally, localities benefit financially because no new infrastructure is required (as opposed to new development, requiring new water and sewer lines, streets, curbs, gutters, etc.).
Reinforces Density and Mixed Use
Don’t we find it ironic that New Urbanists and advocates of Smart Growth promote principles that are already inherent in many of our historic neighborhoods and communities? This stuff isn’t revolutionary! Historic neighborhoods were built to accommodate a variety of uses and were scaled to the human, not to the car. Planners today tout mixed-use development because it encourages a mixture of uses and activity, creating vibrancy and diversity in the streetscape. Historic neighborhoods can also accommodate a combination of income levels - from renters to home/shop owners. Because of the density and mixture of uses, historic neighborhoods also reinforce the interconnection of residential, retail, office, and manufacturing activities (pre-Euclidean zoning patterns).
Business Incubator and Local Dollars
Eighty-five percent of all new jobs in America are created by small businesses. From an economic development perspective, historic buildings serve as perfect incubators for small business. They can offer flexible space and affordable rent in locations that are desirable to customers - downtown or in their own neighborhood. Vacant, buildings brought back to life are also brought back as tax-generating assets for a community (for more information, see Why Historic Preservation is Smart Growth).
Additionally, while new construction does generate jobs, it also generates a lot of waste that goes into landfills. Rehabilitation of existing buildings uses significantly less materials and uses more labor (read: jobs... skilled jobs). The materials and energy saved when restoring vs. new construction is significant. As the National Trust for Historic Preservation says, “the greenest building is the one already built.”
Specifically As Affordable Housing
Contrary to popular belief, historic preservation and affordable housing can go hand in hand. Studies show that over 60% of houses in older and historic neighborhoods have shopping within one mile, public transportation is available to residents in nearly 60% of older and historic neighborhoods, and that older homes are more affordable than new construction).
If Historic Preservation Is So Great, How Can We Promote It?
Historic preservation is often met by critics who claim it is too expensive, or too regulatory in nature. I contend that historic “preservation” should not be inferred as freezing a building in time and limiting its uses. The best way to “preserve” a historic building is to ensure that its use be relevant and active - not obsolete and not a museum. Perhaps historic “revitalization” is in fact the mantra that preservationists should adopt.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation is the national “face” to preservation in this county. I think that leadership from the Trust could inspire creatively and provide guidance to local governments, so that historic preservation is not thought of as bureaucratic or “taking-away of private property rights.” Guidelines that encourage rather than discourage reinvestment in historic buildings may anger preservation “purists,” but I would rather see utilization to vacancies. This could be as simple as streamlining the development approvals for a rehabilitation project, or reducing proffers.
The existing Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit has been an economic driver in restoring historic homes nationwide, spurring over $25 billion in private investment in 25 years. Perhaps additional incentives could be provided if a developer can roll the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit into a historic renovation project. The current Historic Tax Credits can only be used for income-generating buildings. A bill introduced in 1994, H.R. 5249 (103rd) Historic Homeownership Assistance Act, is designed to work like the existing tax credit to provide a 20% tax credit for the qualified expenditures made in rehabilitating a historic residence - providing tax incentives to individual homeowners. This bill has yet to pass.
Finally, as a combatant to gentrification, policies should promote diverse, economically integrated neighborhoods and policies that promote homeownership. It is vital that renovated historic housing remain affordable. Historic preservation provides an opportunity to provide affordable housing while at the same time being the most sustainable development there is.
Guest Contributor: Liz Russell