Inclusive, Accessible Cities: Pitting Preservation Against Affordable Housing Misses the Point

By David Brown posted 10-27-2016 12:01


Many American cities are in the midst of an affordable housing crisis—one that particularly impacts renters and the lowest-earning Americans, whose incomes have stagnated while housing costs have risen. City leaders and community organizations across the country are seeking strategies to increase the supply of affordable housing. Recently, the White House responded to the crisis with a Housing Development Toolkit, which summarizes perceived barriers to new housing creation and highlights 10 actions that state and local governments can take to overcome those barriers.

A mix of old and new buildings in Seattle demonstrates that historic preservation can co-exist with new development. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust shares the administration’s concern about the lack of affordable housing diminishing the nation’s economic strength and threatening the renaissance underway in many cities. In fact, many of the barriers to affordable housing identified in the toolkit, such as lengthy development approval processes and outdated zoning codes, have also been identified by the National Trust in our work to leverage old and historic buildings as assets that promote economic development and resilience for cities. Our Preservation Green Lab has not only recognized such barriers but also cited the tools to remedy this crisis.

But we disagree with the report’s suggestion that “arbitrary or antiquated preservation regulations” are a leading driver of the lack of affordable housing. In fact, historic and older buildings and neighborhoods are central to the retention and development of a diverse housing stock that reduces income inequality and grows the economy nationwide.

The National Trust’s ReUrbanism initiative—with its core focus on reuse—supports more diverse, equitable, and vibrant cities through the active, creative use of older and historic buildings. Working with residents, community organizations, developers, city leaders, and other partners, we are seeking new ways to reuse, rehabilitate, and reinvest in existing buildings to create sustainable, resilient cities of the future.

The Value of Older Neighborhoods

Research by the National Trust and others has shown that older buildings contribute significantly to the environmental, economic, social, and emotional health of neighborhoods and their residents. They provide a diversity of housing types rarely seen in new developments as well as a broader range of retail and office spaces that serve new and independent businesses and support a vibrant local economy.

Older neighborhoods contain hidden density. The Preservation Green Lab’s analysis of three high-rent cities—Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.—found that areas with older, smaller, and mixed-vintage buildings had significantly more households per acre, housing units per acre, and people per square mile than areas with consistently newer, larger buildings.

Federal and state historic rehabilitation tax credits have supported the creation of thousands of units of affordable housing in historic buildings. These credits can be paired with New Markets and low income housing tax credits to unlock the potential of many thousands more affordable rental housing units. Since 1978 the federal historic tax credit has resulted in more than 525,000 units of housing in rehabilitated historic buildings, of which 28 percent were affordable for low- and moderate-income families.

Many downtowns, like that of Louisville, Kentucky, feature mid-sized buildings that are only occupied on the first level, leaving enormous opportunities for new housing units. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation 

Opportunities for Density Abound

While historic preservation is sometimes wrongly painted as a leading cause of the affordable housing crisis, only a small percentage—typically less than 5 percent—of the building stock in most American cities is included in local historic districts.

Many of the best opportunities for redensifying our cities are in places that were cleared out for urban renewal and automobile-centric development. Underused parcels of land often include space to increase density and develop new affordable and mixed-income housing that complements existing fabric without displacing residents and businesses.

The Preservation Green Lab is currently working to quantify opportunities for the reuse of vacant existing buildings, underused upper floors, vacant land, and surface parking lots in large cities. When policymakers are able to visualize the opportunities for density through reuse, they will be better equipped to remove barriers to the production of affordable housing that enhances existing neighborhoods.


Surface parking, like this lot in downtown Minneapolis, is a significant barrier to creating more density in urban areas. | Credit: Zachary Korb, Flickr via Creative Commons

Flexibility Exists Within Older Neighborhoods

Many older neighborhoods, including designated historic districts, can accommodate new housing—without demolition—through infill development and incremental additions. The legalization of accessory dwelling units (often known as in-law units or granny flats), which are frequently barred by outdated zoning, offers an especially exciting opportunity to create new housing for existing families and new residents.

The affordable housing crisis gripping America has been decades in the making and will not be resolved overnight. Much can be done to reduce barriers and address both the supply and demand sides of the housing equation. We believe that an incremental approach focused on the rehabilitation of vacant and underused buildings and infill development on vacant lots can play a significant role in addressing the affordable housing crisis without displacing more people or undercutting those qualities that are critical drivers of local economies.

David J. Brown is the executive vice president and chief preservation officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

#ReUrbanism #RealEstate #HistoricPropertiesRedevelopmentProgram

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