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Why Historic Preservation Districts Are Crucial to Cities

Historic neighborhoods provide benefits to everyone, not just homeowners.

Chicago's Pullman Historic District. (National Trust for Historic Preservation/Cynthia Lynn)

All across America, from Cleveland and Buffalo to Portland and Pittsburgh, people from all walks of life—led by the young, diverse, millennial generation—are choosing to live, work, and play in historic neighborhoods. When asked why they moved to these areas, residents often talk about the desire to live somewhere distinctive, to be some place rather than no place. They want things like windows that open, exposed brick, and walkable communities, and continually use words like “charm” and “authenticity” to describe what they are looking for. In short, many Americans today want their homes and workplaces to be unique and distinctive—exactly the kind of distinctiveness, character, and sense of place that historic preservation districts provide.

Indeed, historic preservation districts provide benefits to people, whether or not they actually own a home in them. In New York’s Lower East Side, for example, millions of people visit annually to experience a remarkably intact 19th century tenement neighborhood. In Chicago, the annual Historic Pullman Community house tour is among the most popular residential house tours in Illinois, providing a glimpse into the lives of workers in George Pullman’s planned community. These places and thousands of others—from the Milwaukee Avenue Historic District in Minneapolis, to the Harvard-Belmont Historic District in Seattle—provide more than just housing for current residents. They also serve as living history lessons, and tangible reminders of a city’s past. They connect us across time to those who came before us.

Historic preservation districts also help Americans to tell the story of their nation, in all its complexity and diversity. No one would argue that certain historic districts feature grand historic homes and affluent residents. But for every Georgetown or Beacon Hill, there are places like Eatonville, Florida, or Detroit’s Corktown, modest communities that have been home to generations of working class families. The history embedded in these communities is just as important, and just as worthy of our full preservation efforts.

A recent CityLab article largely glosses over these attributes of historic districts, focusing instead on the suggestion that historic preservation districts are to blame for the affordable housing crisis that many U.S. cities are now facing, mainly because, the article suggests, they thwart attempts to achieve denser neighborhoods that can provide housing for more people. While this is a common view among a certain subset of urban economists, it is also deeply flawed, for a number of reasons.

First, older buildings are often very well equipped to provide affordable housing, because they were designed to hold multiple families and uses. That is why, all across America right now, creative adaptive reuse projects are converting historic schools, warehouses, old homes, and other buildings to housing for those in need.

Second, while we share the concern about the affordable housing crisis gripping the nation, getting rid of historic preservation districts is not the answer. Economists such as Edward Glaeser have argued that historic districts prevent affordability by limiting tall and dense new development that could fit everyone. But, as the urban planner Jeff Speck points out in Walkable City, “economists don’t seem to have fully processed one thing the designers know, which is how tremendously dense a city can become at moderate heights. Boston’s North End, in Jane Jacobs’ day, achieved 275 dwelling units per acre with hardly an elevator in sight.”

We all agree that the lack of affordable housing in many cities is a growing crisis. Average rents in New York and San Francisco are at new highs, with a one-bedroom apartment commanding more than $3,000 a month. According to Sarah Karlinsky, a senior policy advisor with the San Francisco Planning Urban Research Association, the greater San Francisco metro area had added 480,000 private sector jobs over the past five years, but only around 50,000 new housing units—slightly more than 10 percent of what is needed. Compounding the problem, the new construction that does happen tends to favor the desires of the city’s wealthiest citizens over the needs of average San Franciscans. As the planning professor Karen Chapple put it, “You can just simply make much more money building for a luxury market.”

All that being said, it’s far from clear how casting aside historic preservation districts would address these troubling trends. And in fact there are plenty of ways to increase density and affordability in cities that don’t involve destroying the historic fabric of our communities. A recent survey of vacant and underused properties across one-third of New York City found over 3,500 vacant buildings and nearly 2,500 vacant lots, enough to house 200,000 people comfortably. Many were vacant as a result of real estate speculation and warehousing. In San Francisco, meanwhile, the city’s one-space-per-unit parking requirement is estimated to increase affordable housing costs by 20 percent. Experts have estimated that removing it would enable 24 percent more residents to buy their own homes.

All over America, preservation projects are expanding housing options, helping cities becoming more affordable, and demonstrating that history, sustainability, fairness, and economic vitality can go hand-in-hand. We should not scapegoat historic preservation districts—one of our best tools for preserving density and smart, vibrant growth—for an affordability crisis whose origins lay elsewhere.

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